Zoe Saldana apologises for playing Nina Simone in controversial biopic

Actor previously defended her role in the film but now says ‘somebody else should tell her story’

Zoe Saldana has apologised for playing Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina, a casting that drew criticism from the late singer’s estate. “I should have never played Nina,” she said in an interview on Instagram with Steven Canals, creator of TV show Pose. “I’m so sorry. I know better today and I’m never going to do that again. She’s one of our giants and someone else should step up. Somebody else should tell her story.”

Saldana is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, and used skin-darkening makeup when playing Simone, as well as a prosthetic nose. In 2012, when the casting was announced, the singer’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly praised Saldana’s acting but said: “Appearance-wise, this is not the best choice.” She called for actors with “beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses” to play her mother. In 2016, the official Twitter account run by Simone’s estate told Saldana: “Please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Zoe Saldana pictured in February.
Zoe Saldana pictured in February. Photograph: JC Olivera/WireImage

After accusations of blackface, Saldana had previously defended the role, saying: “If Elizabeth Taylor can be Cleopatra, I can be Nina. It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it. I will honour and respect my black community because that’s who I am.”

The film’s black distributor, Robert L Johnson, complained about the colourism debate ignited by the casting, saying in 2016: “It’s unfortunate that African Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves. The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.” Other black stars including Queen Latifah voiced support for Saldana.

In her new Instagram interview, Saldana said: “I thought back then that I had the permission because I was a black woman. And I am. But it was Nina Simone. And Nina had a life and she had a journey that should have been, and should be, honoured to the most specific detail because she was a specifically detailed individual.

“I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago, which was a different leverage, but it was leverage nonetheless. I should have done everything in my power to cast a black woman to play an exceptionally perfect black woman.”

As well as the casting controversy, Nina was poorly reviewed and beset by other problems. Its writer-director Cynthia Mort sued the film’s producers over disputes regarding editing, financing and more. She later dropped the lawsuit and gave the film a muted blessing, saying: “There are very different visions of what the movie could have been and should have been. Other than that, I think Zoe was amazing … I’m proud of a lot of the movie.”


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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