Negativity has surrounded the forthcoming Nina Simone biopic, Nina, ever since the trailer made its official debut on the Internet with actress Zoe Saldana playing the titular role. Critics attacked Saldana and the creators of the film for casting a light-skinned actress to play the iconic musician. Two weeks after the trailer's backlash poured in, the biopic's distributor, RLJ Entertainment, fired back at the haters to defend Saldana and dispute their "she's not black enough" argument.
The main concern facing the people protesting the film stems from Saldana's physical appearance being heavily altered, instead of casting directors finding a dark-skinned actress with similar features to play the role. This didn't sit well with many (especially African-Americans), because Simone's dark physical appearance had a significant impact on on both her life and career.
RLJ Entertainment founder and chair, Robert L. Johnson, issued a written statement explaining why he fully supports Saldana, who is of Afro-Latina descent, playing the lead role. He also broke down how unfair the the controversy is, comparing it to old discriminatory practices like the brown paper bag test.
"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," said RLJ Entertainment founder and chair Robert L. Johnson, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people."
The 37-year-old New Jersey native, who has starred in over 30 movies, used deep skin-darkening makeup and facial prosthetics to fill the part, which added to the criticism. Many deemed the act as a modern day form of blackface.
Johnson believes the focus should be directed toward Saldana's creativity and quality of performance, instead of debating whether her natural skin tone is right for the role. Saldana has not spoke out much about the backlash, but Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and celebrities like Queen Latifah and Paula Patton defended her.
Johnson, who also founded BET, remained passionate about the topic from beginning to end. He admitted that he would happily engage in a conversation with anyone to discuss how light or dark someone should be to portray a character.
Talent seemed to be a top priority for Johnson. He then went on to pose a question of role reversal: if he were to create a Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne biopic, should the casting call read "no dark-skinned women should apply?"
"Make the judgment on the talent of the actors, make the judgment on the writing, but don't make it on whether or not Zoe Saldana is as black as Nina. You can always say, 'Gee, I can find somebody who's blacker,'" Johnson said. "Let's talk about [the film] in terms of giving talented African Americans a chance to play roles that they're qualified to play."
Nina is scheduled to hit select theaters and VOD on April 22.