Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina.
When writer-director Cynthia Mort spent a day with Nina Simone in the early '90s, she didn't dare imagine that the legendary singer would be the subject of her debut feature film…or that the film would become an agonizing, incendiary calamity. Mort had never been in awe of anyone the way she was with Simone, and when an acquaintance was going to photograph the musician in her apartment on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood for Rolling Stone, Mort was determined to meet her.
« I said, 'I gotta go, because I love her,' » Mort said, recounting the story recently at a diner not far from that former home of Simone's. After some back-and-forth and begging, Mort went to the shoot as the photographer's assistant.
Nina Simone in France in July 1988.
Michel Gangne / AFP / Getty Images
« I spent the entire day with Nina and that photographer in that apartment. It was incredible. She really was like a queen — her presence. She said over and over again, 'They stole my Porgy money' » — a lament about Simone's first hit recording, « I Loves You, Porgy. »
« But her demeanor was really something; it was amazing, » Mort said. And then, after a long pause, she added, « That's how much she moved me. »
Mort sounded wistful talking about it. But throughout an interview with BuzzFeed News, she mostly had the resigned air of someone who has realized she cannot win — because it seems to have already been decided that her movie Nina, which will be released in theaters and on VOD on April 22, is doomed.
And since no one has become more aware of that than Mort, here she was, discussing Nina's difficult 11-year journey — both the racial politics it has inflamed and the behind-the-scenes torments between Mort and the movie's producers, which at one point became so acrimonious that she filed a lawsuit against them. (One she dropped soon after, but the version scheduled for release is not her cut.)
In the end, the movie's tortuous path has not led to a place of peace, as it sometimes does with a long-gestating passion project. No: Nina will be released into a world that — with a few exceptions — has forcefully declared that it does not want to see Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone under any circumstances.
The outcry against the casting of Saldana began immediately after it was announced in August 2012, and it grew loud enough that the New York Times wrote about the subject's complexities. A consensus of media, scholars, and fans felt strongly — according to the Times — that casting the lighter-skinned Saldana, who is black and Latina, was an example of colorism, and that Simone's physical image was of particular significance because the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist had « celebrated her looks, which were unconventional by show-business standards. »
Most damningly, the article quoted Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, criticizing the filmmakers' casting decision. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Simone Kelly said. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice. » (Saldana's publicist said she was not available to be interviewed regarding Nina. Reached through Facebook, Simone Kelly said, « I have nothing more to say about Nina. »)
While the clamor over the film ebbed — mostly because it’s taken so long to be released — it erupted again after the trailer was released in March. On Jezebel, Kara Brown wrote, « One of the most harmful products of anti-black racism is the notion that our proximity to whiteness increases our beauty and desirability, not just to white people, but also to each other. By simply existing, Nina Simone confronted this lie. » In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, « There is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem. »
And after Saldana tweeted a Simone quotation — « I'll tell you what freedom is to me- No Fear… I mean really, no fear » — the Simone estate's official Twitter account smacked back: « Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life. »
Cynthia Mort at the AFI Awards in 2008.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images
Mort, who is white, grew up in Detroit, and she first heard Simone's music there. After Simone's death in 2003, Mort began to consider the musician as the subject of a screenplay. « What drew me to Nina Simone was, first of all, who she was as an artist, » Mort said. « She was an uncompromising artist. And that was my primary connection to her. I liked her activism, I liked her anger. I felt that she needed to be known for those reasons. And that's what I hoped the movie would be. »
As a writer, Mort worked on Roseanne and Will & Grace and wrote the screenplay for the 2007 Jodie Foster revenge thriller The Brave One. She also created the 2007 HBO show Tell Me You Love Me, which lasted only one season (though memorably so: Its explicit and realistic portrayal of sex was unprecedented, even for pay-cable television).
In 2004, Mort told her agents that she wanted to write a screenplay about Simone. « Half of them were, like, 'Who?' » she recalled. They set her up with the record executive and producer Jimmy Iovine, who through his label at the time had a deal with Paramount Pictures. « He, of course, revered and knew her, » Mort said. Iovine signed on as a producer, and Paramount agreed to develop the movie the next year. (Iovine is no longer associated with Nina.)
In researching Simone and how she had spent her later years, Mort learned of Clifton Henderson, a nurse's aide at the now-shuttered Century City Hospital in Los Angeles, where — according to Mort — Simone spent time under a psychiatric hold. « He was her nurse and became her assistant and then really kind of became her everything, » Mort said. She found Henderson and flew him to Los Angeles to talk about his experiences with Simone. It was then that Mort decided to tell the Nina story through his point of view, and bought his life rights.
BuzzFeed News was not granted the opportunity to see Nina after multiple requests. But Mort said that the movie begins in the '90s, travels to France with Simone and Henderson, and continues until the singer's death at age 70. It includes flashbacks over a 40-year span to « important events in her life, » Mort said. (Henderson died in 2006; David Oyelowo plays him in the movie and is also an executive producer. He was not available to be interviewed.)
By working with Henderson, Mort was already unknowingly running counter to what the Simone estate would ever want. In a rancorous post on ninasimone.com from October 2012 called « An Open Letter to Anyone Who Cares About Nina Simone, » Aaron Overfield — whose LinkedIn profile says he is the « official representative » of the estate — wrote, « Well before Nina’s death, before talks about a movie, issues were expressed about Clifton’s intentions regarding Nina and his efforts to keep her isolated. » He also wrote that if Simone had known the circumstances of this movie, she « would’ve shown up at the studio with a shotgun to speak with Ms. Mort and slapped the makeup off Zoe. »
Overfield did not respond to BuzzFeed News' multiple requests to comment. In his professional capacity, Overfield, who is white, also appears to be the person who sent the « please take Nina's name out your mouth » tweet to Saldana, since Simone Kelly told Time that she had not authored it.
Of Henderson, Mort said: « There are mixed feelings about him, and I understand that. I think his motives were questioned. But he was with her all throughout the last years of her life. »
David Oyelowo as Clifton Henderson.
It's not only the focus on Henderson that appears to have frustrated Simone Kelly. In a widely shared Facebook post from the day after Saldana was cast in 2012, Simone Kelly — without mentioning Saldana — wrote about her mother's many accomplishments, and how she wished those would inform a movie about her life. « Nina Simone was a voice for her people and she spoke out HONESTLY, sang to us FROM HER SOUL, shared her joy, pain, anger and intelligence poetically in a style all her own, » Simone Kelly wrote. « My mother stood up for justice, by any means necessary hahahaha YES, she was a revolutionary til the day she died. … The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY. » (As a direct result of these impassioned feelings fueled by her dislike of Nina, Simone Kelly told the Los Angeles Times last year that she actively participated in and executive-produced the 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus. It ended up being nominated for an Oscar.)
In her Facebook post, Simone Kelly also pointed out that Henderson was gay and had a purely professional relationship with her mother; there had been no « made up love story » between them. It is a detail she has repeated in various interviews, even recently. Yet Mort said there is no romantic plot in Nina. « I'm not sure where that came from, » she said of Simone Kelly's assumption. « It is a love story of sorts, but it's not a romantic, sexual story. Not at all. »
« We understand that Clifton Henderson was gay, » said Barnaby Thompson, one of Nina's producers, in a telephone interview from London. « What Cynthia tried to do with the script, which I think she did brilliantly well, is to take an unusual approach to a biopic. So this isn't about Nina's rise to fame. It's dealing with complicated human emotions, and dealing with a woman trying to make sense of her life. Hopefully, if the film works, the audience will come to understand Nina through Clifton's eyes. »
Oyelowo and Saldana.
In late 2009, Mary J. Blige became attached to play the lead role in Nina, and the casting did not set off any explosions — the pairing appeared to make sense. Blige did, however, run afoul of Simone Kelly when she told Rolling Stone in 2010 that « playing a character like Nina Simone is playing myself, because Nina Simone was a manic depressive, drug addict, alcoholic, cursing wild maniac that I was, but very talented, so people would get that. »
« My mother was not a drug addict. She was many things but a drug addict is not one of them, » Simone Kelly told the website EURweb.com some months later. A singer and actor herself, Simone Kelly was promoting her cover of her mother's song « Four Women » for Tyler Perry's movie For Colored Girls at the time. In that interview, she also said she was trying to reach Blige to talk to her about her mother's life. “All I can say is, if you’re going to do a movie about a great public figure, I think it behooves you as a person who has decided this is what they want to do, to do their due research so that you can embody the character and bring the most that you can of their personality to the screen, » she said.
Lisa Simone Kelly, Jayson Jackson, ReAnna Simone Kelly, and Liz Garbus at the Academy Awards in February 2016.
Randy Shropshire / Getty Images
If Simone Kelly and Blige did manage to speak together, it ended up being for nothing, because in 2012, both Mort and Thompson found that Blige was too busy to carve out the time to film Nina. « Mary is an incredible woman, » said Mort. « She really is. She's very moving, very talented. I spent a lot of time with her. But she was very, very busy. » (Blige's publicist did not respond to requests to comment.)
The casting search for a new Nina Simone began, and it was a daunting one. They needed an actor who could play Simone when she was young and old, and someone who could sing. Paramount was no longer behind the movie — « They put it in turnaround, » said Mort. « It wasn't their kind of movie, it was too radical. »
Ealing Studios Entertainment, a British company that was then run by Thompson and Ben Latham-Jones, had joined the project and was putting the financing together independently. When the topic of casting Saldana — who at that time had not only co-starred in the blockbusters Avatar and Star Trek, but played a lead in 2011's Colombiana — was brought up, Mort and Thompson had conflicting takes on whether economics were a factor.
Mort said « put the looks aside »: What she needed from her Nina Simone was « the danger and the recklessness and the fierceness — all of those things. »
« Certainly I would not have cast Zoe if I felt she was wrong for the role in a million years. Zoe's amazing. She's amazing in the movie, » Mort said. « She gave her all. She's honest, she's courageous, she's fierce. »
« No one ever thought that they were going to make millions out of this story! »
But yes, Mort said, the movie needed star power to help get funding — an assertion that gets to the heart of not only the debate over Nina, but also Hollywood's recent #OscarsSoWhite crisis. « Go to those people, » Mort said about financiers and studio executives. « Take a look at their lists. And find out how many black actresses are on their lists. Or how many women of a certain age are on those lists. Or how many women who look a certain way are on their lists. It's really informative. »
Thompson, on the other hand, said choosing Saldana had nothing to do with her bankability. « There is a narrative that seems to be running in some of the coverage of the film, which is suggesting that we were making decisions driven by commercial reasons. And I think it should be very clear that this is a low-budget indie movie. The budget was just over $7 million, » he said.
Thompson compared the actor search to the difficulties of casting Hamlet. « The decision to hire Zoe was that she ticked the quite stringent boxes that required ticking in a way that very few other actresses did, » he said. « I read about this movie like it's in a parallel universe, like it was a big Hollywood film. Like we all thought we were going to make millions — no one ever thought that they were going to make millions out of this story! »
Mort disputed Thompson's insistence that money had nothing to do with casting Saldana. « For me, Zoe was a creative decision, » she said. « However, long before I met Zoe, there were other people considered who were not acceptable to financiers. And for Barnaby to say anything other than that is incorrect. »
In fall 2012, more than seven years into Mort working on the movie, Nina was finally about to go into production — but it was under a cloud. Simone Kelly's remarks and Facebook post about Saldana and Henderson had been picked up everywhere, making it very clear that this project was unauthorized, though, Mort said, « I wish she had participated in our movie — and she chose not to. »
According to Mort, no one was blowing off Simone Kelly's concerns and hurt feelings. « It was difficult, » she said. « You would want things to have gone down in a different way. That's how she felt. Nobody was sitting around saying, Oh, too bad. It was tough! Tough for Zoe, tough for all of us. »
« What we did was the same as has been done in a hundred movies, and is done all the time. »