Correction appended, March 3
Actress Zoe Saldana doesn’t deserve the sharp backlash she has received for her portrayal of legendary singer Nina Simone, the daughter of the late jazz great said Thursday.
Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer’s only child, told TIME she was unaware that the verified Twitter account representing her mother’s estate had slammed the actress after she tweeted a quote attributed to Simone. “Please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life,” the tweet directed to Saldana said.
It’s unclear who runs the late singer’s Twitter account. Her family said they had hired family friend Aaron Overfield to manage the official website and Facebook page years ago. Overfield did not return requests for comment.
The star — who dons dark makeup to play the late jazz and blues singer in the upcoming biopic, Nina — has come under fire since being cast for the role over a black actress with darker skin that would more closely resemble Simone’s. But most of the criticism is misdirected, Simone’s daughter told TIME in a rare interview Thursday. “It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” said Simone Kelly, 53, who is also an actress and singer. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”
Outrage over the casting and storyline should be steered towards the film’s director, Cynthia Mort, Simone Kelly said. The daughter has disavowed the movie for at least a decade and said the family was not consulted during its production. Nina focuses on Simone’s personal relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson, played by David Oyelowo. The cinematic version of the story falsely depicts the iconic singer, her family said. It’s about the “the name you know” but “the story you don’t,” according to the biopic’s trailer, which was released Wednesday.
“The movie is about a relationship between my mother and Clifton which never took place. They never had an amorous relationship,” Simone Kelly said, adding that Henderson was a gay man. “The project has been tainted from the very beginning. Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered.”
Watching the trailer didn’t stir much emotion for Simone Kelly, who has been vocal against its production since 2006. “I really didn’t feel much of anything except for poor Zoe,” she said. Simone Kelly’s husband, Rob Kelly, said it was difficult to watch the clip, which begins with a scene in which Saldana is strapped to a hospital bed after fighting doctors. “Everything from the first scene when she’s strapped to a gurney is a lie,” Kelly, 49, said. “We’re both very passionate about her legacy being told the right way. What she actually accomplished is not common, and most people don’t know that.”
RLJ Entertainment, which is the distributor for Nina, didn’t comment on the storyline but defended Saldana in a statement to TIME on Thursday. “Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent,” said Robert Johnson, the company’s founder and CEO. “The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”
While the family is “not upset with Zoe,” Simone Kelly said she didn’t think the actress was the “proper choice, appearance-wise.” “There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses,” she said. “And Nina, in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”
Nina Simone died in her home in France in 2003 at the age of 70 after devoting a lifetime to being a civil rights activist. Her daughter said she’s more at peace with the controversial film after the release of the authorized documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? The film, directed by Liz Garbus, received a 2016 Oscar nomination and accurately depicts the life of the prominent recording artist, according to the family.
“I’m no longer bothered by it because the truth is already out there,” said Simone Kelly, who is releasing her second musical album in France next week. “I don’t have to justify, define or educate anybody about my mother anymore. It’s a wonderful feeling. I’m free in a way that I have never been before.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated RLJ Entertainment’s relationship to Nina. It is the film’s distributor.
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