After a long and troubled path to theaters, including cast changes and a lawsuit, director Cynthia Mort’s biopic of legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone is finally opening on April 22. But when the trailer for Nina dropped Wednesday, showing Zoe Saldana as the iconic musician, the controversy over Saldana’s casting reignited, with Simone’s estate responding to the actress with a tweet: “Take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
On Thursday, Mort quickly defended Saldana’s performance as one that captures the bravery and brilliance of Simone. “Zoe gave an amazingly courageous and great performance,” Mort says. “I think that’s all that should matter.”
Nina has faced a number of roadblocks over the course of its production. In 2010, Mary J. Blige was attached to star as Simone, but she soon dropped out. Saldana replaced her, and some denounced the casting choice, saying Saldana was too light-skinned to play Simone. Mort also filed a lawsuit against the film’s production company in 2014, delaying Nina’s release, and accused producers of cutting her out of the decision-making process.
“I wish the movie well,” Mort says now. “There are very different visions of what the movie could have been and should have been. Other than that, I think Zoe was amazing, and David [Oyelowo] was amazing, and I’m proud of a lot of the movie.”
One of the film’s biggest detractors has been Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, who’s criticized Saldana’s casting in the past and preferred to work on Liz Garbus’ recent documentary about her mother, the Netflix release What Happened, Miss Simone? Mort says she reached out to Simone’s family “numerous times,” but they weren’t interested in being a part of Nina.
“There’s a lot of good in it, and people should see it,” Mort says. “The bottom line is this: Nina Simone deserves to be known.”
Nina distributor, RLJ Entertainment, also issued a statement from its founder and chairman, Robert L. Johnson, who’s also the founder of BET.
“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone,” Johnson said. “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.”
Reps for Saldana and Simone’s estate did not respond to a request for comment.