Open Letter to Cynthia Mort
Dear Cynthia Mort:
I know that truth and fiction can be configured. I also know that Hollywood has a stenographer’s imagination when it comes to the supply and demand of dark black women. Knowing this, I see your interest in making a film that interprets Nina Simone’s life as ambitious for any director, especially one that is white and female. Ambitious because on the one hand, liberties can be taken with truth in biopics (or loosely-based real people dramas, which is what your quote in the NY Times strangely comes to mean) and on the other hand, dark women of color are hard to market in Hollywood.
With respect to your industry’s creative license to make believe, I wonder what you want to make and what you believe. Have you ever seen Paris is Burning, which was directed by another ambitious white woman filmmaker, Jennie Livingston? If so, I wonder if you know about the fallout from Livingston filming young black and Latino gay men whom were poor and homeless, often in drag and many affected by HIV/AIDS. Livingston was praised for giving outcasts a voice and a presence. Having watched the movie for the first time in the 21st century, I was impressed with the movie’s candid interview scenes, the kind that realty-TV shows now use to predicate storylines.
But there was fallout from Livingston’s film. The fallout was quiet, maybe it was so intellectualized that you didn’t hear. It was a question, really, and maybe no one asked you: Did the white director manipulate the space with her whiteness? It is difficult to conceive of a black film with a white director and not ponder intention. This is why I ask, again, what kind of film do you mean to make about Nina Simone’s life? Let me be clear. There is a fundamental difference and several principle differences between Livingston’s movie and yours. Livingston’s movie was not meant to be fictionalized. And her subjects agreed to have their lives transmitted to film.
My small hope is that you can answer what you intend to make of Nina Simone’s life with more ease than discomfort. Fallout over choosing Zoe Saldana to play Nina after Mary J. Blige was unconfirmed has been gunning. Nina’s daughter has already taken to social media to let our neighbors around the world know that the biopic is not just unauthorized, but that the major storyline that you were quoted as intending to be the force of the project is false.
Jennie Livingston did a good deed for herself and for the dynamic real-life subjects of her film. The fallout wasn’t as impactful or as lasting as the deed. What will be your film’s deed for you and others? You might be in the middle of manipulating a black space and leaving no real-life survivors. No little dark girl with a budding afro to check her 20-year old reflection in the mirror of your film. Nina Simone’s legacy is not black, but her image is. Her face has a certain Africanness and an all but quantified West Africanness (we’ll have to summon Henry Gates, Jr.). The people who say her image does not matter are not your friends on this one.
So what is your intention with this film? Why Nina?
Zahra Marie Darby
The difficulty of seeing a light-skinned Latina being cast as a dark-skinned African-American woman is it presumes three things. First, it divorces the role her skinned color played in her art. Her dark-skinned influenced her choice of dress and the roles she was allowed and the ones she defied people to take. Secondly, it presumes that the white-washing or lightening of an icon is a compliment of some sort. Third, and I guess this is a point of personal contention, movies are often the way many youth are introduced to history. The images that are project onto the screen often resonate with those who have no means to parse them out. I understand the argument that any exposure to a history is good, but the history of women such as Simone is so linked to skin color and tone that exposure to inaccurate history undermines the story.
You manifest the sublime on this issue so well. Thank you!