Zoe Saldana apologizes for playing Nina Simone: ‘I should have never played Nina’

Prince Harry during the start of the new partnership between Booking.com, Ctrip, TripAdvisor and Visa

In 2012, Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone in a bio-pic which would end up being called, simply, Nina. The problems began right away – Nina Simone’s estate did not approve of the movie nor did they approve of Zoe’s casting. Once the images came out of Zoe-as-Nina, there was an even bigger uproar. The problem was, as explained in depth at the time, that Zoe is a light-skinned Black-Latina woman with “European” features, and for the film, they used makeup and a fake nose for her “Nina Simone drag” and the whole thing was just as problematic as can be. The film was put on a shelf somewhere for four years, and then released in 2016 to widespread condemnation in the Black community (and the film community too, because it was apparently a terrible movie overall).

There were many layers to the problems around Zoe’s casting as Nina, and one of those layers was Zoe’s flat-out insistence that she was right for the role and there was nothing wrong with her applying darker makeup and wearing a prosthetic nose to play a Black icon. Zoe refused to simply sit down and listen to the larger conversations about race and colorism. Now, eight years after she filmed the damn movie, Zoe is finally admitting her mistake:

Zoë Saldana is apologizing for playing the legendary jazz singer and civil rights advocate Nina Simone in her 2016 biopic Nina. The actress, 42, who is Afro-Latinx of Dominican, Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, spoke to Pose creator Steven Canals about portraying the singer in an interview on Bese on Tuesday.

“I should have never played Nina,” Saldana said. “I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago, which was a different leverage, but it was leverage nonetheless.” She continued, “I should have done everything in my power to cast a Black woman to play an exceptionally perfect Black woman.”

“I thought back then that I had the permission [to play her] because I was a Black woman,” the Avengers actress said. “And I am. But it was Nina Simone. And Nina had a life and she had a journey that should have been — and should be — honored to the most specific detail because she was a specifically detailed individual. She deserved better.”

Crying, Saldana added, “With that said: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know better today, and I’m never going to do that again.”

Saldana’s casting was met with controversy around the time of the film’s release for the darkening of her skin and for a prosthetic nose that was intended to aid the actress in looking more like Simone. The singer died in April 2003. The actress defended her portrayal of the singer in 2013 when she told Latina magazine, “Let me tell you, if Elizabeth Taylor can be Cleopatra, I can be Nina — I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it. I will honor and respect my Black community because that’s who I am,” she added.

[From People]

I believe that she’s sorry now and I’m glad she’s apologizing. But I do wonder why she was so insistent for years that what she was doing was A-OK. She wasn’t some ignorant kid back then either – she would have been 33/34 years old when she was sitting in that makeup chair, being unevenly applied with black makeup all over her face, neck, arms and hands. At no point was she like “hold up, is this RIGHT?” Of course, it wasn’t solely her mistake – this whole thing was a mess and they never should have approached her to play this role. The movie never should have been made, honestly.

Prince Harry during the start of the new partnership between Booking.com, Ctrip, TripAdvisor and Visa

Prince Harry during the start of the new partnership between Booking.com, Ctrip, TripAdvisor and Visa

Prince Harry during the start of the new partnership between Booking.com, Ctrip, TripAdvisor and Visa

Photos courtesy of Backgrid (archived Fame/Flynet) and ‘Nina’.

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38 Responses to “Zoe Saldana apologizes for playing Nina Simone: ‘I should have never played Nina’”

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  1. Atti says:

    There needs to be a new Nina Simone movie. Do it right.

  2. BlueSky says:

    I remember when this happened and I was like “Was India Arie not available?” It was so insulting and I remember her being an insufferable a$$hole about it.

    Nina Simone was unapologetic about her blackness and her features and thumbing her nose at what was viewed as being beautiful.

    It’s so frustrating seeing these scores of beautiful dark skinned black women who couldn’t even get roles because they don’t fit into the European standard of beauty. She should’ve have apologized along time ago but I’m glad she finally acknowledged that this was a problem.

  3. Priscila says:

    Why was she insistent it was okay? Two things: one, she is indeed a black woman, She made a career not playing particularly black characters- I can think just w couple of movies she was described as such- and perhaps she thought she could reclaim it in some way and get a pass, because yes, she is what they now call afro latinx.

    Two: she is an actress and, as her career shows, she has ambition. But what she does not have is the kind of acclaim others do and perhaps she craved it. Biopics tend to attract lots of attention to the actors playing the part, if not accolades. That Nina Simone had such an eventual life- and Zow, who failed to see colourism was something that a dark skinned woman with a political voice like Nina would be have been imensely affected, simply went ahead with her ambitions to play a role she thozgh might have elevated her.

    At the end of the day, most actors are perfectly willing to overlook men like Woody Allen, who yeah, was not found guilty of molesting a five years old, but groomed, seduced and married a sixteen years old daughter of the woman he had a long time relationship with , in the name of career, as you can ask many people, from Cate Blanchet to my fave, Tom Hidddleston…and, if you ask Scarlett Johansson, she can very well play a tree because she is up to anything, the fault being with the prickly swj woke people, not with her, so actors be actors: easier to go ahead, so something that might bring them what they want and, if it backfires, there is always a possibility of an apology.!

    But yeah, at least she sounds sincere.

    • Rebecca says:

      You listed a whole lot of white actors and their white fans who overlook Woody Allen. Mind you, Woody Allen doesn’t even cast Black actors in his movies.

      Why do you expect Black Americans to not have some standards in who plays real people from OUR community???? ESPECIALLY someone so unapologetically Black as Nina Simone????

      • Priscila says:

        I think you read my comment backwards but okay. I am not saying black americans should not have standards about who gets to play black characters. I am saying Zoe might have felt she could do it because she was black and also, because as an actress, she might have found this part would have given her accolades- that is all- and i listed actors who have chosen to go to ignore ethical problems and play who they wanted to play.

        But yeah, I dont understand the point you are making tbh. I hope to have answered, but I am not sure?

    • Queen Meghan’s Hand says:

      Spot on!

    • lily says:

      About Allen, Soon Yi had 22 years old hen they started their relationship, wasn’t a teenage. And they had been happily married for more than 20 years.

      But yes, i am happy to see Zoe apologizes and Angelina Jolie must apologize too because she did the same as hundred of others actors. Great now people will be callet out for do it.

      • Ange says:

        Absolutely NOT here for that today. Woody met her when she was 10 and was in a fatherly role in that family, no matter how unconventional.

  4. Blondems says:

    Honest question; is this a case of Zoe Saldana not being considered ‘black enough?’ Isn’t this an issue that black women face too?

    • Edwin says:

      Well the real issue is the black woman she pretended to play loved her blackness and what bothered her most was the Eurocentric appearance standards imposed on black women in America. She wanted to inspire black women to define there beauty without the influence of societal impositions. So to have someone like Zoe Saldana who often identifies her self as a Latina actress (Early on) who had to darken her skin and wear a prosthetic nose, was an immediate slap in the face of the black community specifically the black woman.

    • detritus says:

      Nope.

      It’s not that she isn’t ‘black enough’, it’s that her facial features are European, which aren’t the same as Nina’s.

      They hired someone who fit closer to their colonial ideal of beauty to play a woman who broke the idea that black women must look as white as possible.

      Honestly, the article explains it really well. Colourism and Eurocentric standards of beauty are issues within many communities, if you want To learn more I’d start with googling those terms.

      • Blondems says:

        @detritus and @Edwin; thank you very much for your comments – I appreciate it! You’re absolutely correct. I think I was more looking at how Saldana herself may have seen it – that she herself has black heritage so had the right to play Simone. I wasn’t looking at the entirety of the issue. Thank you!! :)

      • Sigmund says:

        Yeah, I appreciate this explanation, thanks. I was also a little confused what made Zoe a poor fit, but this makes sense.

      • Q says:

        I agree somewhat with your comment but I have to say something about your ‘European facial features’ comment on behalf of my east African friends who take offense to it. They have these features naturally without having any admixture. I know models such as iman have commented on it before, how being called ‘a white woman dipped in chocolate’ early on in her career upset her.
        We all need to do better and be mindful of the things we say.

      • detritus says:

        Noted, Q. how would you discuss the issue of certain features being valued over others and as a way of grouping them?

        Because this is not just about colour, and it Is very much not about denying the blackness of women who look like Saldana.

  5. Mia4s says:

    Yeah this was REALLY rough; and I’m glad she’s no longer trying to push that it was OK.

    Generally speaking if you have to paint your skin in such a manner to play a role, it’s not a role your should be playing. Go ahead and paint yourself blue or green or purple and play a Star Wars alien; but other than that? Just…no.

    • Bettyrose says:

      This reminds me of Forest Whitaker in the Last King of Scotland. I don’t think the controversy was about his suitability for the role but the choice to paint his skin darker. I heard him defend (or more like refuse to discuss) that choice at the time.

  6. Nanny to the Rescue says:

    The last photo: Is the front of her neck painted, but the back isn’t? Or is that just lighting?

  7. Lively says:

    This was effing terrible, Nina Simone did not deserve this idiot or stupid movie.

  8. line says:

    For me the only reason for her insistence on playing Nina Simone is due to her ambition. She is a successful actress in the fact that she had works very regularly since the beginning of her career but she has never had professional recognition from the part of the profession like Viola Davis, Angela Basset, Thandie Newton, Kerry Washinghton or even Halle Berry. So she decided to take this chance and not let go of . Because the colorism’s problem is a subject as old as Hollywood and Saldana’s whole career is fonded into this problem.

  9. BnLurkN4eva says:

    I knew she would get here eventually. Zoe always takes a minute to learn important lessons because she’s so strong willed, which is a good trait, but can also be a weakness. I wish she had listened to community at the time and hear their reasonable complaints about why she was not the appropriate black woman to play Nina. This role needed a Viola Davis looking actress, not to mention someone of that talent range and while I am someone who thinks Zoe is underrated as an actor, I felt that this role called for even more than Zoe brings to the table acting wise. I am happy she apologized, I believe she’s sincere, she just had to get here on her own.

    • Rebecca says:

      She said in an interview that her own mother told her not to do it and that she wasn’t right for the role.

  10. emmy says:

    She’s… also not the greatest actress? She’s not bad at all with the right movie and I haven’t seen this one but I don’t see it. And that makeup is horrid.

    This was a whole discussion at the time and she was arrogant as hell about it. Also, don’t cry about it now. I find crying in this context so manipulative.

  11. Steph says:

    Considering how she double and tripled down on it at the time, I don’t believe she’s sorry. I think she has a project that might be noteworthy coming out and her PR told her to say that bc of the climate.

    • Lala11_7 says:

      @Steph…thank you for saying this so I didn’t have too…Black folks LOST THEIR MINDS during the production of that travesty and she was hearing the clarion call in REAL TIME.. and gave nary a pluck…and Zoe KNEW better…understood the horrible nuances…QUITE WELL…but was selfish AND entitled enough to NOT care one bit

    • Dragon Wise says:

      Bingo! She has had every opportunity to change course, but she chose not to, and dug herself in deeper. She isn’t sorry. She just has to say something apologetic because she messed up so bad and people still remember.

  12. osito says:

    I get that she’s sorry, and I can understand why some people will still accept this apology, but the whole “Now that I know better….” is driving me batty. It’s softening or muting the responsibility that she had in harming the legacy of Nina Simone and increasing the struggle for representation. She knew better the second Lisa Simone was like “Please don’t play my mom,” and she didn’t care. She also knew better because she had spent her entire career up to that point “downplaying” her blackness, which was part of what made her insistence that all she needed to do was change her physicality — let alone examine the ways she chose or was required to reject the very things Nina Simone demanded the world see and love about her and about black identity. There’s also the matter of the film about the genius woman who wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Mississippi Goddamn” being absolute trash — I never saw it because I remember the criticism of the script in pre-production, which involved mischaracterizations of everyone involved in Nina’s life, outright lies, and an exploitation and conflation of both her mental health challenges and her highly appropriate rage. The four-year release was also telling.

    So she’s saying she would use her leverage and her resources differently now, she needs to *do it*. Make movies about blackness and black women and black families and Afro-latin peoples and families. Tell our stories with people who look and sound like us. Make those stories come to life with us and people who respect us. And let’s stop pretending that and apology coupled with “but I didn’t know any better” is the best anyone can do. She can do better, so I’ll hold her to a higher standard.

  13. MerlinsMom1018 says:

    I love love LOVE Nina Simone. I play her on a loop constantly. Glad I never saw the movie.

  14. Alexis Dietz says:

    It’s not hard to understand, it’s completely spelled out for You now; they won’t even hire dark skinned black women to play Nina Simone. It’s colorism. And it’s lazy .

  15. Valiantly Varnished says:

    What I find the most gross about Zoe Saldana playing Nina is that for YEARS she refused to a knowledge being Afro Latina. She would only refer to her Latina heritage. But the moment Nina came out she was claiming blackness and being a black woman. When it was convenient and beneficial for her.

  16. YAS says:

    I’m glad she finally got there. Now, I’m going to need video/on demand services to stop trying to push this movie into my consciesness in their effort to be like “SEE, WE HAVE BLACK CONTENT ON HERE” in this moment. I can’t get away from it. And we all need a new Nina movie – one that appropriately honors her.

  17. Guest with Cat says:

    Wow I had no idea about all of this. I like Zoe for her science fiction roles. She seems to get a lot of work obscuring her race and ethnicity, so I can understand why she jumped at the chance to embrace the chance to play an African American icon and in her mind, celebrate that part of her heritage. It must be extremely hard and frustrating for black actresses to find themselves then stratified according to shades of brown and black and according to European vs African facial features during casting of roles, especially when good roles are so few and far between.

    I don’t think this sort of stratification exists for white actors. I mean, nobody blinks an eye at white actors and actresses wearing facial prosthetics to play real public figures. I think there was a recent movie about those blonde Fox newscasters and some of the actresses had to wear facial prosthetics to look like the newscasters. I forget which actresses, maybe Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman. They were cast for their acting chops and overall similarities to the real people. But nobody then criticized them for taking further cosmetic efforts to enhance the resemblances.

    So if Zoe was looking at that long standing practice of white actors donning heavy makeup and even fat suits and prosthetics to play certain other white characters, I can see why she stuck to her position at the time.

    My daughter does stage plays and says one of the great joys of acting is getting to play people who are very different from yourself. This was probably part of the appeal to Zoe.

    But certainly there is a legitimate concern that more suitable actresses were denied the opportunity to play Nina Simone because their darker skin and African features kept them marginalized in Hollywood to begin with because of those features.

    Their feelings and lack of opportunity were not taken into consideration back then. Thank goodness for the change that is afoot now, that a different perspective is finally heard and acknowledged.

    I just hope more roles open up for people of color all around, so this stratification is less of a painful and divisive issue.

  18. Flying Fish says:

    She knew she was not right for that role, she did it anyway and was a complete bitch about it, The damage is done.

  19. khaveman says:

    Zoe is amazing. Do they need to re-do this to keep in step with current cultural needs? Probably. I don’t blame her and really like her films.