Zoë Saldaña tearfully apologises for controversial role as Nina Simone

Count Guardians of the Galaxy star Zoë Saldaña among those in Hollywood re-examining past choices amid the racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd.

Saldaña drew sharp criticism for the 2016 biopic Nina, in which the actress wore dark makeup, a prosthetic nose and false teeth to play late soul icon Nina Simone, with some equating the physical transformation to a new form of blackface.

But the Afro-Latina star, whose father is of Haitian and Dominican descent and whose mother is Puerto Rican, was steadfast in her defence of the project and her role in it despite the backlash.

Zoe Saldana in 'Nina' (RLJ Entertainment)
Zoë Saldaña in Nina. (Photo: RLJ Entertainment)

During an Instagram video this week with Pose creator Steven Canals, however, Saldaña tearfully apologised for taking on the part.

“I should have never played Nina,” Saldaña said during the hourlong discussion (with Nina chat beginning around the 40-minute mark) published via her new media platform Bese.

“I should have done everything in my power, with the leverage that I had ten years ago, which was a different leverage but it was leverage nonetheless, I should have tried everything in my power to cast a Black woman to play an exceptionally perfect Black woman. It’s growing. It’s painful. I thought back then that I had the permission, because I was a Black woman. And I am. But it was Nina Simone.”

Simone’s family was among those most critical of Saldaña’s casting in the unauthorised biopic, which had originally featured singer-actress Mary J. Blige in the lead before Saldaña took over. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice,” the “Feeling Good” and “Sinnerman” singer’s daughter Simone Kelly said at the time.

Read more: Nina hammered by film critics

“Nina had a life and she had a journey that should have been, and should be, honoured to the most specific detail,” Saldaña continued to Canals, growing more emotional as her response carried on. “Because she was a specifically detailed individual. About her voice, her views, her music, her opinions, and her art. And she was so honest. So she deserved better. And with that said, so I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, because I love her music. She’s one of our giants.”

Aside from the controversy, Nina was not generally well-received, earning a paltry 2 percent approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Saldaña now says she wants to see Simone’s story told by more appropriate players.

“Somebody else should step up. Somebody else should tell her story,” she said. “I just want her story to be told, and I want it to be right, because she deserves it. And America deserves it. Because the Americans that inhabit today’s America deserve her story to be told.”

American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003) performs on a television show at BBC Television Centre in London in 1966. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003) performs on a television show at BBC Television Centre in London in 1966. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

The conversation between Saldaña and Canals promised to deliver a discussion about “Afro-Latinidad, colourism in the Latinx community, Nina Simone, and more.” It certainly delivered that and more with Saldaña’s tearful apology alone.

“I know better today, and I’m never going to do that again,” she said. “Never. I’m learning. I’m still processing it. I’ve been processing it for 10 years, and I think it’s a conversation that I wanna have. I’m not gonna allow people to violate me, to make me feel less than. But I am going to be open to this conversation, so we can grow from it, and we can give back to ourselves and to each other our identity. For f***’s sake, it’s about time.”