Nina Simone Biopic Premieres at Cannes Amid Lawsuit and Photo Controversy

Zoe Saldana at the Cannes Film Festival in France May 14, 2014

Two years ago, film director Cynthia Mort set out to cast Mary J. Blige as the iconic Nina Simone in Nina, a biopic about Simone’s life. Unfortunately, because of a scheduling conflict, Blige had to back out of the film. It was then that Mort tapped Zoe Saldana to take over the role.

The fact that Mort picked Saldana didn’t sit well with many people. Some cited the fact that Saldana bears no resemblance to the darker-skinned and broader-nosed Simone. Others took it a step further and questioned Saldana’s acting abilities, even though she’s a more seasoned actress than Blige.


None of these issues stopped Nina from being made. Today the film is being screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but the drama surrounding the film only gets meatier.

Mort has filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that Ealing Studios Enterprises Ltd., the United Kingdom producer behind Nina, has breached the terms of her director deal. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mort decided to take legal action after being cut out of the decision-making process regarding the film. 

“She worked tirelessly to prepare the Film for a wide and successful commercial release,” says the lawsuit. “Yet, 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. Mort is seeking unspecified monetary damages and doesn’t want the defendants to make decisions regarding the film without her permission.


Adding to the controversy of Nina, a photo of a “made-up” Saldana hit the Internet today.


As you can tell from the photo, not only was her skin darkened with makeup, but it also looks as though a prosthetic was used around her nose area.

The photo, posted by film blogger Candice Frederick of Reel Talk, has definitely received its fair share of critiques:

Last year Saldana expressed her own opinion about the backlash she received. “I guess what kept me from being hurt by the negative comments was that I’m doing it for my sisters and my brothers, and I don’t care who tells me I’m not this or I’m not that. I know who I am, and I know what Nina Simone means to me,” she said.


As Nina makes its Cannes debut this week, it’ll be interesting to hear the reactions about Saldana’s performance, along with the controversy that will surely continue to follow it.

Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.


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