Zoe Saldana Says She Regrets Playing Nina Simone, More Cultural Specificity Was Needed For That Role

Written by Ann Brown
Actress Zoe Saldana says she now regrets playing Black music legend Nina Simone. She says more cultural specificity was needed for that role. Photo: Zoe Saldana arrives at the premiere of “Avengers: Endgame,” April 22, 2019. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP). Jazz singer Nina Simone attends a Black Association of Radio Announcers convention in Atlanta, Aug. 10, 1967. (AP Photo/BJ)

When Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana was cast to portray jazz legend Nina Simone in the 2016 film, “Nina,” there was outrage. Critics said Saldana’s lighter-skinned tone just did not match the proud, darker-skinned Simone’s hue. When it was revealed that Saldana used darkening makeup in the role, the outrage grew even louder. 

Using Saldana to play the role had broader consequences related to “Blackness” and that fact that it is not monolithic.

Reparations activist and #ADOS founder Yvette Carnell @BreakingBrown noted in a recent tweet, “People really don’t understand that there’s no reparations movement without anchoring it in an identity outside of flat Blackness. That was/is part of the work. #ADOS

Now the “Guardians of the Galaxy” star says she regrets playing Simone and that more cultural specificity was needed for the role. During a recent IGLive livestream, Saldana said taking on the role of Simone was a bad decision.

“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 — I should have tried everything in my power to cast a Black woman to play an exceptionally perfect Black woman.”

Saldana not only used makeup to darken her skin but was fitted with a prosthetic nose so her features would resemble Simone — something that didn’t sit well with many critics who saw “this as transformation and her portrayal as neo-colorism,” Complex reported.

“I thought back then that I had the permission because I was a Black woman,” said Saldana, whose father is of Dominican and Haitian descent and her mother is Puerto Rican. “And I am. But, it’s Nina. And Nina had a life and a journey that should be honored to the specific detail.”

“Nina” was the feature writing and directing debut for Cynthia Mort, a white TV writer and producer for shows including “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace.”

Someone else should “step up” and tell Simone’s story in a way that evades any controversy and truly puts her life and journey in perspective, Saldana added.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 73: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin makes the case for why this is a multi-factor rebellion vs. just protests about George Floyd. He discusses the Democratic Party’s sneaky relationship with the police in cities and states under Dem control, and why Joe Biden is a cop and the Steve Jobs of mass incarceration.

“We’ve been appropriating ourselves with someone like Nina Simone for a very long time,” she continued, wiping away tears. “And I just want her story to be told and I want it to be right because she deserves it.”

Even Simone’s estate spoke out against the film. When Saldana tweeted a quote from the singer, Simone’s estate tweeted back, “Cool story, but please take Nina’s name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life,” The Wrap reported. 

However, at the time, Saldana defended her choice to take the role. Now she regrets it. As Simone sang, it seems Saldana has the “Backlash Blues.”