Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone Darkens Controversy

The first photo of actress Zoe Saldana as the celebrated jazz and soul singer Nina Simone has been leaked on the Internet, answering some questions and raising others.

From the image of Saldana, 34, wearing an Afro wig and what appears to be a prosthetic nose and skin-darkening makeup, it's apparent that the film's director, Cynthia Mort, is aiming for Saldana to look as much as possible like Simone.

PHOTOS: Stars Cast as Icons

Since the casting of the petite actress, born of a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, questions have been raised about how Saldana could be transformed into the curvy, dark-skinned Simone. But creating the look was only one part of the controversy that has arisen, particularly in the black blogosphere, about Saldana's casting. Everyone from singer-actress Jill Scott, who some suggested could play Simone, to her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, has chimed in.

Reps for Saldana and Mort did not respond to ABCNews.com's request for comment.

Kelly, an actress and singer, told The New York Times last month, "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," she added, referring to the casting of Saldana.

Scott was more supportive.

"Zoe is an incredible actress. I think that she's a fine actress," she told website Hello Beautiful.

"I think that there should be some work done, like a prosthetic nose would be helpful and definitely some darker makeup. If Forest Whittaker can become darker in 'The Last King of Scotland,' than I believe Nina should be treated with that respect. She was very adamant about her color, about her nose, about her shape and herself, and there needs to be some homage paid to that."

Criticism of the casting for the unauthorized film is directed less at Saldana than at a Hollywood that has historically cast light-skinned black actresses in leading roles. Simone not only celebrated her Afrocentric features, but she wrote songs about race and racism and was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

Blogger Tiffany Jones, who created the blog Coffee Rhetoric, called it a "frustrating system of white-washing" in an August blog titled "(Mis) Casting Call: the Erasure of Nina Simone's Image."

Even an online petition has been circulating via Change.org, asserting, among other things, that, "getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to their families, to history, to the people who look like the persons being whitewashed, and to the intelligence of the audience."

The petition asks the director, Mort, and executive producer Jimmy Iovine to replace Saldana with someone who "actually looks like Nina Simone."

Mary J. Blige had originally been slated to star in the movie, but had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts, Mort told Entertainment Weekly in August.

Some people have suggested that Viola Davis from "The Help," or Kimberly Elise from Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," would have more closely resembled the singer.

"The reason this is coming up now is there's still such a paucity of opportunity for African-American women to work in the cinema that we are quick to scrutinize each individual role," Mia Mask, the film department chair at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said. "Here, when we have actresses who look the part and they are still overlooked, it only strengthens the argument that there's a pattern here."

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."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...