“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”
This probably won’t matter much to those of you who’ve long been critical of the actress’ decision to play Nina Simone in the upcoming film directed by Cynthia Mort – a film whose future release isn’t entirely certain as of today. But I thought it was worth sharing, given that she initially actually didn’t believe that she was right for the part, for seemingly the same reasons many of you voiced since it was first announced that she would play Nina Simone. It’s just one of those interesting "inside baseball" revelations that I think adds another layer to the entire conversation around this, if only because, from the start, she was quite adamant about her decision to play Simone in the film, despite relentless public criticism (although she certainly had her supporters; so it wasn’t entirely one-sided), and gave no indication that she had any doubts about it, even though, based on the above recent quote from the actress herself, she clearly did. Then again, I suppose she had to convey confidence and strength, and almost a defiance from the start, knowing the kind of wrath she would likely face once news of her casting became public. If she wavered, that would’ve raised even more doubts about the project – especially from her fellow cast members, as well the crew behind the camera.
She also seems to be justifying her casting, by making comparisons to Liz Taylor’s casting in Cleopatra, as well emphasizing what she believes are the complexities that accompany being an artist and the choices one makes – or, essentially, considering herself some sort of sacrificial lamb led to slaughter in order to serve the project… or something like that.
But now you know… Zoe Saldana didn’t think she was right for the part of Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s film. So now what?
I do wonder how her casting actually happened – from when she was approached for the part, what the content of that conversation was, whether she expressed any ambivalence at the time about taking the role, and if she did, what the response was from the filmmaker and producers, etc, etc, etc… But if the film is released eventually, I’d expect Saldana and the filmmaker will do some press for it, and, in the event that S&A isn’t invited to that junket, hopefully those who are will ask these questions.
But as far as the film’s release, as I shared in a post last month, it finally does look like it’s going to happen, as Ben Latham-Jones of the UK’s Ealing Studios (the company behind the film) revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in mid-May, at Cannes, that "Nina," as the film is titled, will be released by "eOne and Universal worldwide later this year." He didn’t specify dates, however. But, at least we have some range of time to anticipate its debut; by the end of this year, we’ll certainly know more about the film.
I’ll be keeping my antennae up for a first trailer, which I’d expect will surface some time soon (assuming the "later this year" release holds).
Last year, the project was taken to the Cannes Film Market (Marche du Film), where it was screened for potential international distributors, and where eOne and Universal apparently picked up rights.
However, one key person who wasn’t present for the Market was the director of the film, Cynthia Mort, who was reportedly none-too-pleased with developments regarding the production of the film, leading to her taking legal action, which may have been what’s held up the film’s release to date (it’s been done for almost 2 years now).
Mort filed a lawsuit last year against the British backers of the film – the aforementioned Ealing Studios – claiming that the company effectively cut her out of the decision making process during production, and, as a result, she was not at all happy with the version of the film that was to be screened for distributors.
According to the lawsuit, Mort had "approval over the final shooting script, the cast and crew, the line producer, the designer and all department head as well as consulting rights on advertising, distribution, shooting schedule and budget."
However, as the suit further stated: "Throughout the course of the film’s production and post-production, defendants consistently acted to frustrate Mort’s involvement in the film, thereby breaching the Director Agreement. These breaches by the Defendants include, but are not limited to: taking complete control of editing the Film in June 2013 and failing to consult with Mort about subsequent cuts and changes; abandoning Mort’s previous cuts of the Film; failing to disclose the Film’s financials, finishing budget, and financing deals; and failing to keep Mort informed of other crucial creative and budgetary developments and decisions throughout production and post-production of the Film."
And further, apparently the film was supposed to have been released prior to the lawsuit (so we’re talking late 2013, early 2014), which obviously didn’t happen.
Mort was seeking monetary damages (the amount wasn’t made public), as well as "a declaration that the defendants can’t make decisions without her meaningful approval and consultation."
In development for at least 6 years, Mary J. Blige was initially attached to star in the film, but she was eventually replaced by Saldana, who brought more international box office gravitas to the production.
The one constant actor throughout the ordeal was David Oyelowo, cast from the beginning to play Simone’s Paris-based manager Clifton Henderson.
Mike Epps plays Richard Pryor in the film.
There still aren’t official images from the film, so the above image is one of several on-set photos circulated online 2 years ago.
It’s worth noting that Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, previously publicly expressed strong disapproval of the project, which doesn’t have the Simone estate’s authorization and certainly not cooperation.
In response, Netflix and RadicalMedia paired up to produce and release the documentary, "What Happened, Miss Simone?," directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus ("The Farm: Angola," "USA" and "Bobby Fischer Against the World"), which will premiere exclusively in all territories where Netflix is available, on June 26.
It was made in cooperation with the estate of Nina Simone, and is described as an "epic" documentary that interweaves never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage together, with Nina’’s most memorable songs, incorporating never-before-heard audio tapes, recorded over the course of 3 decades, of Nina, telling her life story to various interviewers and would-be biographers. Rare concert footage and archival interviews, along with diaries, letters, interviews with Nina’’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, friends and collaborators, and other exclusive materials, make this the most authentic and personal telling of the extraordinary life of one of the 20th Century’s greatest recording artists.
The above quote