I’m writing this letter to anyone who cares about Nina Simone: her legacy, her artistry, her spirit, her genius, her music, her activism, everything. If you care at all about Nina Simone — even if you’ve only heard a few of her songs — then this letter is for you. If you’re here reading this, it’s for you.
I won’t waste time writing to Cynthia Mort or Zoe Saldana and releasing the words out into the public sphere for the chance they might cross paths, because even if that were the case the words would mean nothing to them. What they are creating proves those words would mean nothing, so why waste my breath (or finger taps)? They will not listen.
The issues surrounding this unauthorized film depicting Nina Simone, which we might as well call a biopic since they are naming the thing Nina, are complex, multilayered, and multifaceted. The discussions of the issues are as complex as they are controversial; however, they are important conversations to have and keep having. The most frustrating people are the ones who imply everyone should just shut up and “wait and see” or “leave them alone.” That kind of attitude and oppression is not in the spirit of Nina Simone whatsoever. Quite the opposite. Nina was vocal, defiant, a warrior, an activist. She would not have simply shut up and sat down. She would’ve shown up at the studio with a shotgun to speak with Ms. Mort and slapped the makeup off Zoe. So let’s get that straight first. We’re going to talk about this and those of us with strong, impassioned opinions are going to express them.We will not be silent simply because it annoys those who aren’t in agreement.
Zoe’s complexion (the level of her “blackness”) has taken the forefront in the discussion. Her complexion as well as her phenotype/features. We’re going to have to address this since obviously it is dominating the outcry against this project, understandably so. However, I believe this issue is a byproduct of the much, much larger issue: the total gentrification of Nina Simone. This occurred at the inception of this film so it’s no wonder the script and casting have come to symbolize the total fictionalization of Nina as a person and as an artist.
The script, written by Latin American writer and first time director Cynthia Mort, is based in a series of lies. That is our starting point. Cynthia calls this her “artistic license.” Under that umbrella what Cynthia is implying is that she can pretty much do whatever the hell she wants and she doesn’t have to listen to anyone. Cynthia has focused her story on Nina’s relationship with her personal assistant, Clifton Henderson, himself a controversial person in Nina’s life. Well before Nina’s death, before talks about a movie, there were issues expressed about Clifton’s intentions regarding Nina and his efforts to seemingly keep her isolated. He was around Nina for the last few years of her life. He can be seen with her in a filming of Nina’s concert in Brazil in 2000, during shots of Nina being interviewed in a boat (http://vimeo.com/ninasimone/livebrazil).
After Nina’s death, Clifton sold his story to Cynthia and that became the basis for the movie. So, a (controversial) personal assistant’s relationship with Nina Simone for the very last few years of her life somehow became the focal point of the first ever Nina Simone movie. Moreover, that controversial relationship became fictionalized by Cynthia Mort by her writing the relationship as a romantic one (putting Nina in the role as sexual aggressor and as emotionally needy).
As has been stated before but is worth repeating: Clifton Henderson was a gay man. He was an out gay man. I met him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem during Nina’s memorial service. He was neither a heterosexual male nor a man that Nina Simone had any kind of romantic relationship with. This might be a forgivable “fiction” for Cynthia to slip in if not for how many other fictions and whitewashings are built around this tale. Would Cynthia Mort be pleased with someone rewriting her own history to the point where her sexuality becomes a trivialized inconvenience? It is also the first instance of Cynthia’s script exploiting a marginalized identity by essentially putting “straightface” on an out gay man. This is rather curious since Mort herself is a lesbian and you’d wonder how she’d feel being rewritten as a heterosexual woman under the guise of someone else’s “artistic license.” Would Cynthia Mort be pleased with someone rewriting her own history to the point where her sexuality becomes a trivialized inconvenience? I guess someone would have to ask her that. I won’t bother.
The story of the movie is said to use this lie of a relationship as a focal point whereby they flash back to other moments in Nina’s life including other relationships and some of Nina’s music career. We don’t know much else than that. We know (or assume) there will be some mention of Nina’s civil activism, and her “rise and fall.” Tight-lipped as any filmmaker is, there’s not much else we can know.
However, based on all the clues available we can know this with certainty: the first film about Nina Simone is leaving out anything about Nina Simone that made her oh so very Nina Simone.
How, other than the fictionalized relationship being used as a focal and reference point for the script, can we know this?
One – Cynthia Mort has taken it upon herself to lay claim to the story of Nina Simone without consulting with Nina’s own family. They have not been involved in the process whatsoever. No research, no fact-checking, no basic decency of respect by simply including the family. Keep in mind: we’re talking about someone’s mother. How would any of you feel if a movie were being made about your mother and you weren’t consulted in any way so that the movie had legitimacy, authority, or integrity. Beyond simple respect for the family’s feelings, how can Cynthia Mort write a correct script that includes Nina Simone if she has not consulted with anyone involved with Nina’s legacy? For the most part, she can’t. (And from a personal standpoint I can say that Nina’s daughter Simone is very brutally honest, insightful, and objective about her mother. She does not glorify her but does want her mother recognized for her accomplishments.)
Two – Cynthia Mort is not a black woman. That is a very crucial point here. I am a white man. I know that as a white man I do not have the authority to speak of the black experience because it is not my experience. I cannot and will not “speak” for black people or assume to know the intricacies of racism, as experienced by black people. The privilege and arrogance it takes to do so is disturbing and downright disgusting.
How Cynthia Mort, (who some call a white woman, though I argue she’s Latin American) justifies this to herself boggles my mind. While she may consider herself a fan or admirer of Nina Simone, how does she make the leap to giving herself the authority to decide the version of Nina’s life that is worthy of telling (or fictionalizing) and the gall to decide who should portray Nina on film? The reason I can’t fathom what Cynthia Mort could possibly be thinking is because the arrogance on her behalf is appalling and I know for a fact I would not take such liberties. I would not completely disregard the feelings of a population whose experience I do not share and therefore cannot speak to with authority.
In other words, we know that Nina Simone is being left out of this project because it’s being fictionalized by someone with good intentions who might think she identifies with the subject, but who cannot align herself with the experience because she didn’t and doesn’t live the experience. For her to not acknowledge this fact is proof that she does not and literally cannot understand the criticism and outcry coming from so many people regarding this farce of a film. She has laid claim to the story of Nina Simone’s identity while disregarding the very people Nina spent her lifetime trying to reach, speak to, and impassion.
Cynthia Mort has laid claim to Nina Simone’s identity under the guise of “artistic license” so that she can rebuild Nina in a way that will tell the story Cynthia Mort wants to tell rather than simply telling the story of Nina Simone. Considering what is involved and what is at stake, that is the very definition of gentrification.
People need to wake up: Nina Simone has been gentrified.
Which brings us to…
Three – If the script and filmmaker and anyone behind the film were interested in telling the story of NINA SIMONE, this entire thing would’ve been different from the beginning and we wouldn’t be forced to look at what we’re now being forced to look at. There wouldn’t be such an outcry and there wouldn’t be so much disgust, anger, pain, and heartbreak.
Make no mistake about it, hearts are actually breaking over this. Nina Simone is a damn religious figure to many, a cultural icon to others. She cannot (and should not) be trivialized, marginalized, or repurposed into a Hollywood commodity.
And because this is what has happened, we have come to the casting of Zoe Saldana.
Discussions over Zoe being or not being “black enough” are the most heated and the most prevalent. While I understand this, I think it deals only with the symptom of what is going on rather than the underlying gentrification of Nina’s identity itself. I would argue that if the script accurately reflected Nina Simone – the true, very real, very raw Nina – it would’ve taken a different direction entirely and we would not be forced to look at Zoe Saldana in black(er)face and prosthetics. If they were telling the true story of Nina Simone, Zoe would not have ended up in this role.
Imagine if you will, telling the story of Nina Simone as a dark-skinned little girl with what are considered African features and phenotype (her hair, her nose, her lips, etc). Imagine that is the focus of the story we are going to tell in this film. It’s not hard to imagine it since that IS the story of NINA SIMONE. Anyone who knows anything about Nina Simone knows that the manifestation of her race, her features, her sex, and her personality clashed with societal norms in such a way that she struggled against them her entire life and it shaped her career and her spirit. It’s not hard for us to imagine telling her story using that struggle as the reference point because that was Nina Simone. Given that focus, given the focus on Nina’s fire of a spirit in fighting for beautiful dark skinned and wide nosed black women, how in the world could they have cast Zoe Saldana, only then to darken her and widen her nose?
Can you imagine Zoe all made up like she’s been, playing up on the big screen acting out and singing about Nina’s struggles against racism, colorism, her appearance, and being exploited and marginalized because of those things? Can you imagine how much of a parody that would turn into, as the audience sits back and, knowing what Zoe actually looks like, becomes so confused by what efforts have been taken to make Zoe look like Nina that they are distracted from the actual story? Would it even make any sense? Wouldn’t they wonder why Zoe ever got the role in the first place since that contradicts the entire nature of the movie – the entire nature of Nina’s life – and wouldn’t they sense the hypocrisy? Would it make ANY sense?
No, it wouldn’t. And if that were the story they were telling (again, the actual story of Nina Simone), Zoe Saldana would’ve never been cast in the first place for that very reason. How do we know this? Because to recognize the real Nina Simone and tell her true story means that you are cognizant of what Nina fought her entire life and what embittered her. You would be aware of how she was exploited, marginalized, disregarded, ignored, disrespected … so you wouldn’t continue to do so through the very process of making a film about her. That is, you wouldn’t employ the very same foundations of racism, colorism, exploitation, and disrespect in order to write and cast your movie.
Some keep implying that anyone against Zoe portraying Nina Simone for not being “black” enough are actually being “racist” themselves. (Zoe even agreed with someone who called it “reverse racism.”) No. No no no. NO! That is like someone who is homophobic saying that people are being intolerant by not accepting homophobia. Plus, it entirely misses the point.
The very casting of Zoe itself was based in the still present subtleties of racism, colorism, and beauty standards.
The very casting of Zoe itself was based in the still present subtleties of racism, colorism, and beauty standards. The fact that Zoe ended up being approached for the role (which might make sense considering Cynthia Mort is Latin American), is indicative of the same system that Nina fought her entire life. It shows the entire movie has been misguided from the beginning and Cynthia Mort’s “artistic license” is no more than a spit in the face of Nina’s legacy.
I would also argue this…
People who say that Zoe’s complexion and features shouldn’t matter are ignoring the fact that they are going to such lengths to darken her skin and change her features, thereby proving those things DO matter. Since Zoe was approached for this film, it has to make you wonder why she was ever approached in the first place. Given the history of Nina Simone: her pride in being a dark skinned woman with her features while lamenting treatment based on skin tone (give Four Women a listen), plus her desire to inspire younger women with similar features – why was Zoe ever approached in the first place?They’re not actually making a movie about the real Nina Simone
Oh, that’s right, because of Cynthia Mort’s “artistic license” … and the fact that they’re not actually making a movie about the real Nina Simone and what made Nina Simone oh so very Nina Simone.
We’re not going to stop this movie from happening. And people will continue to claim there’s nothing wrong with it or we should wait and see or we should just stop all the complaining.
Nina recognized injustice, and Nina never shut up.
So should we, and neither should we.
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