Nina distributor Robert L. Johnson is hitting back at critics who slammed the casting of Zoe Saldana as legendary singer Nina Simone.
“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 RLJ Entertainment founder told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.”
Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, has been criticized for playing Simone since she was cast four years ago. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice,” Simone Kelly, Simone’s only child, told the New York Times in 2012.
Speaking to THR, Johnson asked, “Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?” He later added, “As an African American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role. Many people who are talking about it don’t even realize what they’re getting into. Imagine if I were to do a biopic about Lena Horne, who’s obviously light-skinned, or Dorothy Dandridge. Would it be fair if I put up a sign that said, ‘No black women apply’? That would be ridiculous. Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We’re not talking about white against black. We’re talking about black against black.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson has commented on the backlash. After the Nina trailer took off online, Johnson released a statement praising Saldana and the decision to hire her for the role.
“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone,” Johnson said at the time. “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.”
Speaking to EW earlier this month about the uproar, the film’s director, Cynthia Mort, said she felt “all that should matter” is Saldana’s performance as Simone. “She gave an amazingly courageous and great performance,” Mort said, adding she’s “proud of the movie. “There’s a lot of good in it, and people should see it. The bottom line is this: Nina Simone deserves to be known.”
Nina is out on April 22.