The forthcoming biopic of world-renowned songstress Nina Simone has stirred up quite a few sisters. The Cynthia Mort-directed film doesn’t even have a trailer, but has inspired plenty of Facebook posts, articles, blogs, blogs disguised as Facebook posts, open letters and more.
The misguided decision to cast Zoe Saldana in the title role was the first offense but when on-set production images were released of the actress in character with darker skin and a prosthetic nose, most following this debacle went a little apeshit. Recently, while catching up with a good friend I was asked about my thoughts, and I’m telling you, dear reader, the same thing I told her; Take a deep breath, step away from the keyboard, and get over it.
So you don’t agree with Zoe as the lead? I don’t either, for many of the same reasons I see around the web. But there’s pretty much nothing you or I can do to change the film at this point. Simply, once a production begins shooting and contracts are signed, pretty much only an “act of God,” which is an real contractual term, can stop the show unless there is a budget to cover the change. That or Zoe is the secret leader of a terrorist racist militia that we don’t know about, which I doubt. And to be fair, we may never know Saldana’s motives in playing Nina but I do know that she is a beautiful, brilliant actress.
A finished film, like many creative mediums, is at the tip of a thick, business iceberg. What does it take to get a film finished? Investment. And what do investors expect? A return. And like betting, the odds of an investment are based on casting, the director, timing and more. The larger the investment, the more sure companies want their odds. And this is where funky, and at times, desperate and confusing decisions are made because they are based more on the odds of the project being successful than the project being authentic to its original intentions. In some cases, investments are made before a script/idea is fully developed because major names have committed their participation. It’s a common scenario seen often by those of us who work in media, advertising and similar industries and, most times, it makes me want to close my office door, bang my head on the wall while uttering ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’ But eventually, I get over it and start again.
Why? Because there is a flip-side to everything. A film, much like a lipstick, is a consumer good. If consumers don’t buy it or purchase tickets to see it, the product, in this case the Nina Simone movie, will not be seen as successful and its odds of being further distributed and/or repeated are very low as it is no longer a safe investment. I suspect the Nina Simone project is not even being marketed to a black audience, a travesty in itself, but no less a possible reality.
Still, plenty of people will buy a ticket to the film because we all love a good train wreck — even if its miscast, unauthorized by Simone’s estate and pretty much historically inaccurate. But no amount of ranting is going to put a dent in the production right now so all of this online hot air is just that. I’m sorry if the bureaucratic reality leaves you feeling huffy but I’ve long since learned that those who fight with a sound strategy fare better than those who use a caps-lock button. Sorry India.
So what now? First, get to know Ava DuVernay and Lauren Velez, the women behind two current film projects that actually need this level of outrage, first because the non-artsy crowd don’t know about their works and second, because people who aren’t aware can’t support their talents. In 2012, DuVernay became the the first African-American to receive the Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director Award for her amazing film Middle of Nowhere, which is in theaters now and needs your patronage to stay there. Velez is tackling the complex story of Afro-Cuban Latin Soul legend La Lupe, who is regarded on the same level as Tina Turner or even Mary J. Blige within the Latino diaspora. Velez is playing the title role, and she actually looks like La Lupe! Thankfully, Velez made her KickStarter fundraising goal to begin production but there are other independent films that don’t depict men in dresses and need your support through grassroots promotion.
Through this essay I don’t mean to say that weighing in public criticism is pointless, it’s very valuable. But ladies we have to literally put our money where our mouths are by supporting the content creators, studios, and film festivals that tell the authentic narratives of our lives. When we shift en masse, so does the rest of the world because our spending power is strong, even if no one admits it. You’d be surprised what as little as fifty American dollars can do for a indie production, and you’d even still have time to create that protest Tumblr.
ps. Concerning the Nina Simone film, I’m more upset that
Omar Mike Epps is playing Richard Pryor… like, really?