Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone Darkens Controversy

Mask, the author of "Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film," also points out that shifting demographics have Latina actresses on the rise. "Increasingly, we're seeing Latina actresses and non-black women of color cast opposite black men," she said, adding that Saldana has become an A-list star, following her roles in "Avatar" and "Colombiana," and in a star-driven system, she's a safe bet for Hollywood.

"I think it's a big role for anybody. Nina Simone was large, in many ways. She's iconic and brilliant and talented," director Mort, 56, told EW. "I find Zoe to be incredibly compelling. She has a lot of great qualities."

Mort, who is white and was a writer on "Rosanne" and the 2007 Jodie Foster film "The Brave One," told The New York Times in September that the film is not a literal biography but "a love story about an artist's journey unto herself."

The film, with a working title of "Nina" and scheduled for release next year, focuses on a love relationship between the singer and Clifton Henderson, Simone's manager and caretaker, played by British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo.

In an August post on her mother's Facebook fan page, Kelly wrote that Henderson was gay. "He was not attracted to women. So, the truth is, Nina Simone and Clifton Henderson NEVER had a relationship other than a business one," she said.

Kelly added that the project is unauthorized and that her mother's estate was not asked to participate.

Whether this is the definitive treatment of Simone's life, there's unlikely to be another mainstream movie centered on the singer.

Said professor Mask: "For black subject matters -- whether political, historical or entertainment figures -- there's so much at stake, because there's so little opportunity to get these films made."

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