The founder of BET has spoken out in defense of Zoe Saldana’s ill-advised Nina Simone biopic and confirmed that his production company will, in fact, release the film on April 22.
Robert L. Johnson is the also founder of RLJ Entertainment, which bought the distribution rights to Nina in September. Following the release of the trailer—wherein Zoe Saldana wears dark brown makeup, a prosthetic nose, and an afro wig for no good reason—and the subsequent dragging of the film by the internet, Johnson released a rather trite statement in defense of Zoe Saldana’s performance.
“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance. We are proud to distribute the film headlined by Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo on April 22, 2016.”
Johnson ignores the fact that physical likeness is obviously much more important in a biopic than when Zoe Saldana is playing a fictional blue or green alien. Further, the continued promotion of David Oyelowo’s involvement in this project isn’t helping anyone.
In a world in which Hamilton is the phenomenon of the year, much of the problem here lies in the fact that the filmmakers didn’t have to heavily distort her appearance in the first place. If, as Johnson says, we shouldn’t judge a performance on physical likeness, then why couldn’t Saldana have embodied Nina Simone without the cartoonish makeup? If she’s capable of giving a performance that so embodies the spirit of Nina Simone, then the size of her nose really shouldn’t matter.
This argument is a silly oversimplification of the real issues of colorism, representation and diversity that plague Nina. It mostly rings of Johnson trying to protect his investment in a film that will almost certainly flop at the box office this spring.
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