As Long as it Makes Money

By Staff Writer Busola Awobode 

bawobode@umass.edu 

We seem to be in the era of biopics. From House of Gucci to Spencer and Pam and Tommy, there is a big push to watch real-life dramatics on the big screen. While these stories are exciting, it is easy to forget that the characters are not fictional, people lived through them, some of which are enthusiastic about these movies, but not many are.

So, what happens when those who lived the story object to its retelling? Well, nobody owns their life story, and it can be taken and dramatized without legal repercussions. The subjects are virtually powerless. Hence, Hollywood could care less about obtaining permission for these stories nor are they concerned with the effects they may have. But is it okay to exploit often traumatizing moments of a person’s life for monetary gain and entertainment just because one can? 

The 2016 biopic titled Nina which followed Singer Nina Simone during a turbulent time in her life has remained one of the more controversial biopics of recent days. At the time of the biopic’s announcement, Simone’s daughter claimed that her mother’s estate was not informed of the biopic, saying the project was “unauthorized”. She also stated her mother’s story was not being told the right way and included falsified plots. Rather than focusing on Simone’s lower moments, she wished the biopic would focus on her achievements, especially her triumphs as a black woman who rose from prodigy to visionary.

With such a strong negative response the biopic started on shaky ground. However, things only got worse from there. Mary J Blige who was announced to star as Simone was replaced with Zoe Saldana an Afro-Latina actor who did not share many features with the late singer. To match Saldana’s features to Simone’s her skin was darkened and she wore facial prosthetics.

Many pointed out the blatant colorism in this decision as it seemed the filmmakers would rather darken a lighter actress than cast a who closer matched Simone. Likewise, it was insulting to Simone who suffered for her skin color and her features. Despite the general backlash from the casting, the movie still proceeded much to the chagrin of the Nina Simone Estate who addressed Zoe Saldana directly in a tweet saying “…please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life”.

Given the circumstances of the release, it is unsurprising that the movie was unsuccessful. Additionally, despite supporting her depiction in 2016, Saldana later apologized for her portrayal of Simone stating that she regretted taking on the role. With the intense criticism and commercial failure of this movie, one can say that Nina was a disaster.

But not many biopics end this way. Most successfully exploit the stories of others with little to no repercussion. The subjects could claim defamation, but it is hard to prove libel. In fact, freedom of speech allows the artist to tell whatever story they choose. And those who fight risk negative press in a drawn-out court battle that often leads nowhere. So, when the pushback isn’t this intense, publicized or successful, what happens. Does it then become okay to participate in this sort of entertainment?

Sources

https://shadowandact.com/nina-simones-daughter-finally-speaks-project-is-unauthorized-simone-estate-not-consulted

https://www.vox.com/2016/3/4/11161980/nina-simone-saldana

https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/zoe-saldana-apologises-playing-nina-simone-biopic/

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