The Controversy Surrounding the Casting of Zoë Saldana as Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s New Biopic
Cynthia Mort is writer/director of a yet to be titled biopic(ish) of the legendary singer/musician Nina Simone. With Mary J. Blige originally attached (for several years before she departed the project allegedly due to financial problems with the production), Zoë Saldana has recently been cast as Simone. There has been an outcry about this mainly around the fact that Saldana bears no resemblance to Simone, but also because Saldana is a Latina (she’s also black, by the way) and has a lighter skin tone than Simone. Director Mort has indicated that it’s not a strict biopic as it takes liberties with the facts (one of which is that Simone had an affair with a gay man — she didn’t). Even Simone’s daughter, whose name is simply “Simone,” has spoken out against the story, and has claimed that following an initial conversation with Mort where they agreed to speak again, Simone was met with silence for, as Mort explains separately in an Entertainment Weekly interview, she was told not to communicate with Simone.
One disturbing fact about this entire conversation is that I have seen several articles that refer to Saldana explicitly as “Dominican,” without mentioning the fact she is multiracial — yes, she is a Latina, but she is also a Black Latina (and there are a great many number of Black Latinos in the world). Also, this is not to disregard that she may be more than “just” Latina and Black. The language used to describe her as a Latina, while simultaneously avoiding that she is also Black smacks to me of a sort of ethnocentrism which pits the Latino community against the Black community and dismisses Saldana’s ethnic, racial and cultural complexities (just like we all have). Yes, I’m in agreement that the casting is bad because of the complete lack of resemblance Saldana holds to Simone (and yes, resemblance also includes skin tone), but I do not think that “she’s not Black, but Latina,” is a valid argument against Saldana being cast in the role; in fact, that argument is completely fallacious. That is one reason I wanted to provide this digest, to not only follow along with the controversy surrounding a biopic of a woman I greatly admire and have been a fan of for years, but also to address, in some small way, the prejudiced approach that many journalists and those choosing to leave comments on news sites, have taken with regard to Saldana playing Nina Simone.
What are YOUR thoughts? Please leave a reply below.
*MUST READ*:We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation)
at Shadow and Act
Raha Shirazi’s ACQUA was part of the Short Cuts Programme dedicated to screening Canadian films. Shirazi is no stranger to the Toronto International Film Festival, having brought her film Four Walls to the fest in 2007. Beginning with a woman (Shirazi) walking, we see that she passes through what seems to be a variety of climates. She wears simple clothes, and it’s obviously modern day, but where is she going? Eventually she comes to a river and wades in with a large glass bottle. It’s raining as she goes further and further into the river, finally stopping when the water is almost to her waist. The color palette is very effective, with muted, cool tones. Her character dunks the bottle into the water and lets it fill up, then repeats her trek to the river in reverse. Only in the final few seconds of the film are we shown why she did it. Her mother has died and she must return to her home with water to wash the body. When she enters her home, the color palette changes to warm, golden tones. Her face and her mother’s body are illuminated by the flames flickering in the fireplace as Shirazi’s character soaks her scarf in the water and rubs her mother’s arms, hands…. A poignant moment.
In the Q&A following the shorts program, Shirazi revealed that in her own cultural tradition (Iranian) this is something that is done when people die — they wash down the bodies before burial. And, she added, it’s also something that she did when her own mother died a few years ago. I found this incredibly touching as well as courageous of her to put herself into a character experiencing the same thing she had to face a few years prior. It is a beautifully shot film which takes its time and allows the audience to explore its meaning.
UNION SQUARE (2011)
Directed by Nancy Savoca
Screenplay by Nancy Savoca & Mary Tobler
I’ll be honest and say firstly that Nancy Savoca’s work is one reason why I’m a filmmaker. It’s one reason why I write, it’s one reason why I love movies, it’s one reason why film is my passion. My appreciation of Savoca all started with her 1993 film Household Saints, a perennial favorite of mine for myriad reasons. So, I was ecstatic to be able to snag a ticket to the screening of her newest film, UNION SQUARE, which she co-wrote with Mary Tobler. This was a very challenging film for me for a few reasons: the characters were so well developed that they seemed like real people (complete with painful flaws & haunted pasts), it was claustrophobic (taking place almost exclusively in one place, a New York City apartment), and it was shot in various places throughout as an almost docu-style drama.
The story revolves around two estranged sisters, both of whom are trying to escape their personal pain. One of them is played by Mira Sorvino, whose character embraces her “Bronx-ness,” has an affair with a married man (she’s married, too), which we find out through overheard phone conversations and some dialogue, and who drinks and wears loud clothing to call attention to her “assets.” The other sister is played by Tammy Blanchard whose character is very much on the straight and narrow, but she has lied to her fiance about her past (he thinks she’s from Maine) and has hidden her personal history of drug abuse and a mentally ill mother. When Sorvino’s character “Lucy” hits the city and drops by (after three years of the sisters not speaking or seeing each other), an emotional bomb is dropped on “Jenny” (Blanchard).
Despite the excellent performances, the naturalistic acting, the incredibly effective direction, this film put me on edge more than any I’ve seen since Jim Sheridan’s 2009 film Brothers. I could feel my heart start to beat faster and my blood pressure rise as I watched. It was stressful. It was real. It felt like some of the worst, most emotionally wrenching moments of my life. I left feeling confused, emotionally exhausted and with the realization that as together as I think my life is, none of us is really that far away from the emotional trauma explored in UNION SQUARE. But that’s exactly what makes this film so good. It’s a film that you can ruminate on and endlessly explore. This isn’t something I realized in the theatre, or the day after, or the week after, but I finally got to it.
The Q&A following the screening included director/co-writer Nancy Savoca, co-writer Mary Tobler, producers Neda Armian and Richard Guay, and supporting actor Mike Doyle. Savoca revealed that all of her first choices for actors said “yes,” including the legendary Patti Lupone (mother to “Jenny” and “Lucy”) and Michael Rispoli (“Nick,” husband to “Lucy,” who also starred in Savoca’s Household Saints). It was filmed in Richard Guay’s (Savoca’s life & business partner) apartment in New York City. From what I heard, it seemed almost like a charmed production.
THE GOOD SON (2011)
Directed by Zaida Bergroth
Screenplay by Zaida Bergroth & Jan Forrsström
Zaida Bergroth is a genius director. According to imdb.com, this is her ninth directorial effort and third feature film. While I’ve not heard of Bergroth before, I took the opportunity I had while attending TIFF to not only see women-directed films, but also to see films by non-North American directors. Bergroth is Finnish, though that does not have much to do with the story. THE GOOD SON is about an aging movie star who is a single mother raising two sons, one probably around 18 or 19, the other around 10. A weekend in the country trying to get away from vile press coverage turns into “Leila” (the mother, played by Elina Knihtilä,) desperately needing attention from a man. While her oldest son “Ilmari,” (played by newcomer Samuli Niittymäki), serves as her fierce protector, no matter the problems this “new guy,” presents, “Leila,” is often confused and bewildered, switching sides between the weekend fling and her own son on whom she depends for her safety and constant affirmation.
Events escalate and turn violent between the two men after “Ilmari’s” girlfriend tells him a lie about “Leila’s” man attacking her. While the man himself is guilty for a few rash decisions to become physical against “Ilmari,” the situation becomes even more violent when “Ilmari” tries to not only protect his mother, but himself and their life together as a mother and two sons. The man accuses “Ilmari,” of living in a sick situation (implying that there is some type of serious co-dependence, or worse, attraction between him and his own mother). This enrages “Ilmari,” who nearly beats the man to death as his mother sleeps upstairs. When she awakes, she realizes the horror of what her son has done and secretly helps the man to alert the neighbors. Talking to her son, we can see she is shaken, but on one level has some type of residual allegiance to her son. However, as her son rests his head on her lap to sleep for awhile, thinking he’s done the right thing by attacking the man, “Leila” waits for the police to arrive, knowing that she must finally let her son go.
I had no idea what to expect from this film. I’ve never seen a Finnish film and did not know if there were typical conventions present in the film — perhaps I’ll have to see more Finnish films to understand the broader cultural context of THE GOOD SON as a work of art. In the end, it’s a solid film which explores the mother-child relationship, teen angst, responsibility thrust upon children, and ultimately, the freedom to defend oneself against a threat. Definitely a suspense thriller, Bergroth takes her time to develop the story, so simple on the surface, but so dark and complex as she peels away the layers.
BACK TO STAY (2011)
(“Abrir Puertas y Ventanas”)
Written & Directed by Milagros Mumenthaler
Country: Argentina / Switzerland / Netherlands
By the time I saw this film I was not keen to sit through another 90 minutes of virtually no dialogue and a story that develops at a snail’s pace. Only in the days following the screening am I beginning to process it and understand the characters. Director Milagros Mumenthaler has won some prestigious awards for this film, and I would love to sit down with some of those film festival juries to understand what they saw and why they feel it’s important. That’s not to say that I do not see the importance of the film, though, but I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on it.
It’s a quiet film, almost painfully so, about three sisters who live in a house together which was recently also occupied by their grandmother (deceased about a year). It seems as their relationships are extremely strained, each young woman with quite different personalities. They seem to live in a type of purgatory where little happens, but they are inextricably tied not just as sisters but also as inhabitants of a house where their grandmother’s ghost seems to always be hovering. The furniture is dated, the dresser drawers are still full of her clothes, the girls use a vibrating/bouncing bed that must have been such the rage when first purchased. You feel as if you are living their lives, resigned to a life of boredom and uncertainty, completely blindsided when the youngest girl decides to leave with a boyfriend neither of her sisters knew she had. What is to happen to them all? Do they care about each other? Why don’t they show it? There are scars you can only see in the moments of silence shared between them.
WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (2011)
(“Et maintenant, on va où?”)
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Screenplay by Rodney Al Haddid, Thomas Bidegain (collaboration), Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki
Country: Lebanon / France / Egypt / Italy
Language: Arabic, French
About once a year, I see a film that makes me fall in love with film all over again. I discover the magic that it provides, the exploration it challenges us with, the joy it can reveal in simple moments. Nadine Labaki’s WHERE DO WE GO NOW? is just such a film. I’m in love. A small village in Lebanon made up of half Muslims, half Christians, that has lived in peace for many years, is suddenly turned on its head when an accident spurs a hatred between the two religious groups. The village’s women take it upon themselves to counterract the violence and animosity that develops between the men of the village, resulting in a riotous series of schemes to get them to forget about their differences.
I will stop here and not go further as I think everyone should see this film, and it is filled with so many joyous little surprises and twists that to write about it would only spoil it. But I will say that the rhythm of the film, the music used, the structure of the story, and the direction itself, are so effective that it is easy, if not also dangerous, to lose oneself in the film. Why dangerous? The beauty of the film and the inspirational story is tempered with the reality of war and the death of a child. This film made me laugh over and over again, dream of a better world, had my heart soaring at the beauty of film and the love with which Labaki has treated the story and its inhabitants, but it also made me cry bitterly at the reality that exists on a daily basis. You will be deeply moved by this film.
I am happy to say as well that Nadine Labaki won the Toronto International Film Festival Cadillac People’s Choice Award for this film, which is the top prize of TIFF, a non-competitive festival (no juries to judge films!) It deserves it, and her winning this prestigious award is a testament to her craftsmanship and the beauty she has captured on film.
Sony Pictures Classics has just picked up this film for U.S. distribution. I can’t wait to see it in theatres.