'Nina' distributor defends Zoe Saldaña casting: 'It's a tragic past that still exists today'

The distributor of the upcoming film about Nina Simone, "Nina," says complaints about Zoe Saldaña playing the role of the singer reflect an interracial "pathology" established by slave owners.

"It's a tragic past that still exists today," said Robert L. Johnson, head of the studio releasing the movie next month.

"Nina" producers have been criticized since Saldaña was cast in 2012 for choosing an actress who needed extensive makeup and prosthetics to achieve Simone's dark skin and traditionally African features.

"What people are expressing today is something that happened to us during slavery, when light-skinned blacks were turned against dark-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks were turned against light-skinned blacks," Johnson told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

"It's been an unfortunate part of our DNA that was put in our heads by slave masters that is still present today, as you see by people talking about if somebody is dark enough to play a role," he said.

Saldaña, who is black, has a significantly lighter complexion than Simone. Saldaña's skin appears to have been darkened for the role, and she wears a prosthetic nose.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates said casting Saldaña – star of such hits as "Avatar" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" – speaks to the economics of Hollywood.

"Saldaña is seen as bankable in a way that other black women in her field are not," he wrote in an article posted Tuesday. "It's equally difficult to ignore the fact that, while it is hard for all women in Hollywood, it is particularly hard for black women, and even harder for black women who share the dark skin, broad nose and full lips of Nina Simone."

Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, lamented that blacks have so internalized slavery's notion of division by skin color.

"That's almost saying that dark-skinned black people have a special cross to bear than light-skinned," he said. "That is exactly what was put on us, that's the burden that was put on us by slave owners who separated us by color."

Johnson noted that Rosa Parks was light-skinned: "You think Rosa Parks' pain was less than Nina's when she had to endure not sitting on a bus?"

He acknowledged, though, that he's heard similar complaints about skin tone before.

"I had it when I was running BET. I'd get letters from people saying, 'Why are all the women in the videos light-skinned women? Can't there be any dark-skinned women?'" he recalled. "So it's always been in black life undercover. This issue about Zoe Saldaña and Nina Simone just brought it out to the surface."

Johnson defended the use of makeup in "Nina," saying, "Every film that I've ever seen made by mankind, people put makeup on."

Saldaña has not commented publicly on the controversy. The Simone estate, which cooperated with the production of the Oscar-nominated documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" has urged fans to host listening parties rather than watch the new biopic. Representatives for the estate did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment Wednesday.

Some black actresses, including Queen Latifah and Paula Patton, are supporting "Nina" saying they'll reserve judgment until they see the film, which is set for release in theaters and on-demand on April 22.

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