Nina Simone’s Daughter Speaks Out On “Unauthorized” and Incorrect Zoe Saldana-Starring Biopic

By  · Published on August 20th, 2012

A Nina Simone biopic has been in the works for years now, with Cynthia Mort set to direct from her own script since 2005, and singer Mary J. Blige once attached for the lead role that has now apparently gone to Zoe Saldana – but those elapsed years and that major casting shuffle appear to be the least of the film’s worries, as Simone’s own daughter has now stepped forward to not only refute the very basis of the film, but to poke some major holes into the production’s casting.

Over at Shadow and Act, the team has been carefully putting together a number of posts about the situation that are fascinating on their own (and that I have been eagerly following), but that are also kicking off incredibly interesting (and, frankly, sometimes unsettling) discussions in the comment sections. On the most basic level, fans of Simone appear to be quite displeased with the casting of Saldana in the role (with reasons varying from her looks, her ethnicity, her age, and her talent level), and a number of other names have come up as being far more suitable for the role – actresses like Viola Davis, Lauryn Hill, Anika Noni Rose, and Adepero Oduye, among others. Yet, beyond just the casting (one that appears to have been done, at least partially, to get the once financially-strapped productions some big name juice), the film’s very script appears to be fundamentally flawed – because it just might hinge on a fabrication.

Simone’s own daughter (born Lisa Celeste Stroud, she now goes by “Simone”) sounded off on the Saldana casting, whether or not this film is authorized (hint: it’s not), and the apparent lie that seems to be serving as the very center of the film on the Nina Simone Facebook page last week. It’s a mouth-dropping note and it’s just the tip of the iceberg:

“Greetings Nina Simone Lovers, Simone here.

I have read many of the comments am happy you all took the time to share your thoughts and feelings.

Here’s mine:

When the announcement initially hit the press with MJ Blige cast as Nina (about 6 yrs ago) I heard it along with everyone else. The story was written as a love story between my mother and her former nurse, Clifton Henderson and primarily takes place during the last 8 years of her life.

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

I have seen many names regarding who you think should play the role of Nina. Remember Angela Bassett as Tina Turner? SHE NAILED IT! Angela Bassett is an ACTRESS! And, we all know she lip synced along with Tina and did an amazing job. Personally, I prefer an actress to a singer. Just because a person is great at one does not mean they will be great at the other. If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

My vision of a movie about my mother includes SO many pivotal moments that are monumentally important towards relaying the journey of a woman whose journey began as a child prodigy born in North Carolina in the 1930’s…too many to list here but, trust when I say the tale will inspire through the sheer sharing of HOW Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, The High Priestess Of Soul renowned worldwide. How many of you know my mother’s FIRST love was classical music? Do you know the hours she practiced preparing to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music only to be rejected because of the color of her skin? **After my mother made her transition I accepted a diploma from that very same institute with a speech she began writing but was unable to finish prior to her death.** As a child, my mother was told her nose was too big and she was too dark yet she graduated valedictorian of her high school class – The Allen School for Girls – AND, skipped two grades. Nina was one of the most outspoken, prolifically gifted artists using the stage to speak out against racism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Her friends included Betty Shabazz, Lorraine Hansberry (my godmother), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens worldwide. Had she become a classical pianist, which was her dream….shattered, I doubt she would have found her true destiny. Nina Simone was a voice for her people and she spoke out HONESTLY, sang to us FROM HER SOUL, shared her joy, pain, anger and intelligence poetically in a style all her own. My mother stood up for justice, by any means necessary hahahaha YES, she was a revolutionary til the day she died. From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

By the way:

Clifton Henderson was gay. He was not attracted to women. So, the truth is…Nina Simone and Clifton Henderson NEVER had a relationship other than a business one.

Please correct me, but isn’t a biopic the story of one’s life?

I have faith things will work out the right way and my mother’s real story will be told. For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

Ciao Y’All….Simone”

It’s long been reported that the film would focus on the later portion of Simone’s life (The High Priestess of Soul died at age 70, which would seem to be quite a stretch for the thirty-four-year-old Saldana) and that it would center on the relationship between Simone and Henderson. Of course, the term “relationship” is quite nebulous, but Simone the younger seems pretty adamant about getting out that, at least from what she’s heard, the film centers on a romantic relationship, to the point that she feels the need to mention that Henderson was homosexual (and other comments on this story also indicate that Henderson was in a long-term and monogamous relationship with his boyfriend during his years with Simone).

Vanessa Martinez at Shadow and Act went ahead and read a draft of the script, and she shares that it “centers on her relationship with Clifton Henderson, a nurse Simone met while institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital in California…The story, although set in the early 1990’s for much of the main narrative – a love story between Simone and her young assistant – is anachronistically told through intermittent flashbacks: an 18 year-old Nina reading a rejection letter from the Curtis Institute; Nina playing at a nightclub in 1962; Nina as a young child refusing to play in her school’s auditorium unless her parents sit up front, and so on…Simone begins harboring real feelings for Clifton; and a genuinely loving – yet complex – relationship develops between her and the much younger man.” The film also frames up Simone’s redemption as a product of her relationship with Henderson, a choice that Martinez mentions could be perceived as “simplistic and romanticized.” (Bold items ours.)

Yet, Martinez also notes that “the real highlight of it all is Nina Simone performing” and that “ultimately, the project is meant to honor the passionate soul and sensitive nature – yet resilience- of an immense talent, who, despite her grand achievements, struggled with remorse, insecurity, feeling unloved and misunderstood.” She also notes that it’s a delicate project, and that its “success really depends on the execution. Perhaps with the right performers, editing, cinematography and direction, this could be an interesting, compelling film. Without it, it could be a mess, suffer from a lack of substance and other ills, like, bad acting.” I am a fan of Saldana, and would love to see her break out with this type of role (i.e. something big, meaty, and dramatic), but this seems like some tremendously heavy lifting for the actress.

In terms of the confounding disparity between Simone’s age at the end of her life and Saldana’s age, Martinez seems to be of the mind that different actresses could be used for different stages of Simone’s life, though there is the possibility that, “with make-up work, one actress may transform physically from young adulthood and on.”

Martinez’s piece also includes a character list and a track listing from the draft she read, which are both worth a look, so please give her fascinating post a read.

The script is said to be based on Simone’s own autobiography “I Put A Spell On You” (which you can get a very brief glimpse into over at Amazon), which adds a whole other level to this entire story.

This is all just a bit of the strange information circulating around the film, and there’s certainly quite a bit to talk about when it comes to Simone, Saldana, and truth in biopics, and this is one Hollywood production I cannot get out of my head, so please, dear readers, what do you think?