Release Date: 2016
Studio(s): Ealing Studios, Londinium Films, RLJ Entertainment
Director: Cynthia Mort
Cast: Zoe Saldana (Nina Simone), David Oyelowo (Clifton Henderson), Mike Epps (Richard Pryor), Alexa Davalos (Olivia), Ella Thomas (Lorraine Hansberry), Ella Joyce (Clifton’s Mom)
Story: She was one of the century’s most extraordinary talents, a 15-time Grammy nominee and Grammy Hall of Fame Recipient; her mesmerizing songs and passionate politics combined to make her the unforgettable Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana). But fame and fortune came with a price, and her later years were riddled with depression, alcohol abuse and isolation. Rediscovering the meaning of her life and work took courage, strength and one true friend: Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), the man who started out as her assistant and eventually became her loyal manager. With Clifton’s encouragement, the “high priestess of soul” began a courageous journey back to her music … and, eventually, herself. Source: Shadow and Act.
Simone, who died in 2003, was a singer, songwriter and civil rights activist who performed in a wide range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, gospel and pop. She was a 15-time Grammy nominee and received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000. The story follows Simone’s struggle to balance music, family and what she believes in, which leaves her living alone in France feeling exiled from her own country until she meets Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), who helps her rediscover meaning in her life and music, and to once again embrace America. Source/Photo Source: Variety.
Update 9/11/15: Variety reported on 9/10/15 that RLJ Entertainment has acquired all North American rights to Nina, starring Zoe Saldana as American singer-songwriter Nina Simone. RLJ announced the deal Thursday at the start of the Toronto Film Festival, and plans a December release.
Update 6/11/15: On 5/26/15 Shadow and Act stated that it looks like Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana is going to see the light of day, as Ben Latham-Jones of the UK’s Ealing Studios (the company behind the film) revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Nina will be released by eOne and Universal worldwide later this year. Shadow and Act goes on to report that 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. Source: Shadow and Act.
Update 9/1/14: The long-planned market screening of the biopic about legendary jazz singer Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana went ahead on May 15th despite a lawsuit filed by director Cynthia Mort claiming its British production company hijacked the film.
Mort, a well-known TV writer, making her feature directorial debut, alleges producer Ealing Studios Enterprises, breached the terms of the director deal by cutting her out of the final editing process. According to the Complaint filed May 14th in Los Angeles, Mort had rights over the developing picture and “got approval over the final shooting script, the cast and crew, the line producer, the designer and all department heads as well as consulting rights on advertising, distribution, shooting schedule and budget.” However, as the suit further states, “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.”
Mort says the film doesn’t reflect her vision of Simone as a woman, musician and civil rights activist. She is seeking monetary damages, as well as “a declaration that the defendants can’t make decisions without her meaningful approval and consultation.”
The film first came under fire when it was announced that Saldana would be playing the title role (Shadow and Act reported that Mary J. Blige was initially attached to star in the film, but was eventually replaced by Saldana who brought more international box office gravitas to the production). Many Simone fans voiced their disappointment in the choice, citing racial differences, departure in appearance between Simone and Saldana and the fact that Saldana’s voice would not be up to par. Adding to the casting controversy, is the release of a recent photo of Saldana as Simone, which shows the actress with her skin darkened, a prosthetic nose and even possibly what looks like fake teeth to push her lips out and make them bigger. The “makeover” is being compared by some to the offensive tradition of blackface in which white performers donned theatrical makeup to portray blacks.
Another point of contention is the story. According to Shadow and Act, the film’s official synopsis reads:
A rare and poignant love story about a tormented genius who eventually finds love and peace. The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson.
But as reported in The Daily Mail, Simone’s daughter, Lisa stated:
“They did not ask me or the Nina Simone estate to participate in the film at all. It is based on a lie because it is based on the life of my mother’s assistant, Clifton Henderson. Clifton was gay so he could not have had an affair with my mother, which is what the film implies.
Zoe Saldana portraying her is a bad joke because there are more gifted actresses who are more in keeping with my mother’s appearance. I know how my mother would feel about Zoe, so they are making a mockery of her experiences to construct their own truth.”
In spite of all the controversy and the filing of the lawsuit, it was business as usual as far as the production company was concerned and the film was screened to buyers at the Cannes Film Festival. Buyers polled by The Hollywood Reporter after the screening said they liked the film they saw. Sources: The Hollywood Reporter, Essence.com, Shadow and Act, The Grapevine, SheKnows, Daily Mail.
Details: According to Black Actors, photos of The Avatar actress on set, show her sporting dark make-up and an afro wig. Saldana received backlash after she was cast to play the titular role for “not being dark enough.” (Source(s): Black Actors; Movie Insider).