Nearly everyone has spoken about the upcoming biopic Nina and the decision to cast Zoe Saldana for the role, but for director Jeff L. Lieberman, the issue is deeper than skin color.
In a special op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, Lieberman describes the film as an “ugly and inaccurate portrayal” of Ms. Simone’s life. Liberman was one of three directors who have released a film about the legendary singer and activist in the past year.
His 2015 release ‘The Amazing Nina Simone’ was arguably overshadowed by Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? which was recently nominated for an academy award.
Liberman was not only pleased with Nina, he also debunked claims BET founder Robert Johnson made to THR on the film’s backlash becoming a “black people against black people” on Saldana’s blackness. “For Mr. Johnson to now claim that this is black people against black people is outrageous, and a desperate distraction,” he said. “People of all colors are angered because Hollywood has a long history of casting lighter-skinned actors, and even today with a black president in the Oval Office, the Oscars overlooking black actors, and the Black Lives Matter movement at its tipping point, dark-skinned people are still passed over, even for the role of a woman whose story is defined by her proud blackness.”
Liberman didn’t share much detail on Saldana’s performance as Ms. Simone, but he refused to call her a victim in the backlash. The director points out the actress and rest of team behind the Cynthia Mort-directed project haven’t admitted the differences in appearance and instead, have chosen to ignore it all together.
“The creators of Nina had the option to say, “Zoe Saldana is the best actor for the role and we believe in color-blind casting, and even though Nina Simone fought her whole life against being ‘too black,’ we still feel Ms. Saldana will embody Nina Simone beyond the physical,” he explained. “They did not do that.”
One of the biggest takeaways from his stance on the project is the questionable highlight of Simone’s darker days in the 90’s instead of her proudest days which were three decades earlier during the Civil Rights movement.
“Having worked within the Hollywood system for many years, I am aware that scandal and sensation sells. The recent Netflix-funded documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? also opted for a stronger focus on Ms. Simone’s illness and domestic abuse. My recent documentary film, The Amazing Nina Simone, does not shy away from these facts. In a painful moment, Nina’s youngest brother and longtime band member, Sam Waymon, shares the heartbreaking moment when he had to institutionalize his sister. But these moments are there to answer long-held questions and are balanced by a much larger focus on the way most people know Ms. Simone: through her music. Ms. Simone had six other decades of phenomenal musical accomplishments and civil rights stands, and she became an international symbol of freedom, pride, and artistry. To overlook this is not only an insult to Ms. Simone’s very rich and complex life but a blatant whitewashing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America.”
Biopics of the past have often shown a wider range of the respected artist’s work like Ray (Ray Charles), Walk The Line (Johnny Cash) and Ali (Muhammad Ali.) The move can be taken as a typical Hollywood tactic, but it does bring forward another layer blocking the public from learning the true artist and legend Ms. Simone was.
Check out the rest of Liberman’s piece here.