Despite protestations—which became more vociferous after the release of the movie’s trailer—Nina is still coming to theaters this April, less than a year after two documentaries about Simone were released. Liz Garbus helmed What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and Jeff L. Lieberman directed The Amazing Miss Simone, which debuted last October. And now, in advance of the premiere of Nina, Lieberman has penned a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, in which he calls the biopic “ugly and inaccurate.”
A quick rundown of the preceding controversy: When Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s biopic, the news was met with a hefty dose of skepticism. Simone’s estate, led by her daughter Simone Kelly, objected to the actress’ casting, citing the lack of a resemblance between the two women and raising issues of colorism, as well as decrying the fictionalized romance between Simone and her nurse-turned-manager (played by David Oyelowo in the film). The set photos that were subsequently released did little to assuage concerns over Saldana’s portrayal of the “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” singer.
Nina distributor and BET founder Robert L. Johnson spoke out about the controversy in his own THR guest column last week, posing the query “Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?” and suggesting that people reserve judgment until seeing the film. But Lieberman, who spent five years researching Simone’s life and conducting the interviews that shaped his documentary, calls Johnson’s defense of the film “insulting” in his own op-ed, writing, “I am saddened by the ugly and inaccurate portrayal contained in the script and trailer of Nina and by Mr. Johnson’s desperate attempt to defend the project.”
Lieberman goes on to criticize the darkening of Saldana’s skin for the role, as well as the prosthetics given to the actress to “transform” her into Simone: “[N]ot every actor can play every role, even if you are of the same racial background.” But ultimately, Lieberman appears concerned that the more sensationalized aspects of Nina’s production—Saldana’s casting, the romance created for the plot purposes—will overshadow Simone’s real-life work as a civil rights activist, as well as her struggles with mental illness.