Robert L. Johnson, founder of RLJ Entertainment and BET, has issued a statement in response to the growing controversy surrounding the forthcoming Nina Simone biopic Nina. The film, starring Star Trek Beyond star Zoe Saldana as the inimitable Simone, has faced harsh criticism for its lead casting decision from both audiences and Simone's estate alike. “Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth,” the late singer's official Twitter account tweeted at Saldana on Tuesday. “For the rest of your life.”
Johnson, whose own RLJ Entertainment picked up Nina for distribution last year, has responded to this backlash with a statement emphasizing the biopic's status as a “mesmerizing tribute” to Simone and praising Saldana's emotional performance:
“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance. We are proud to distribute the film headlined by Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo on April 22, 2016.”
The controversy, as noted by our own Kristen Yoonsoo Kim earlier this week, stems from how very crucial the shade of Simone's skin was in her struggle to be heard. The filmmakers' decision to cast a multiracial actress reportedly resulted in Saldana using “dark makeup” alongside a prosthetic nose, the Guardian reports.
“There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can't even get hired to play dark-skinned women,” Marc Lamont Hill wrote in EBONY shortly after Saldana's casting was first revealed. Nina's theatrical release in April, of course, is preceded by last year's excellent (and estate-approved) Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?