Nina: Is Controversy Good for Business?

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In the realm of popular culture, last week was one for the ages. Donald Trump’s seemingly inexplicable reign on the campaign trail continued to roll on with the same force, and sense of reckless abandonment, as the runaway train in the film Unstoppable. However, it wasn’t the political mudslinging, the references to penis sizes, or the fact that people who are openly affiliated with white supremacy groups were helping to push out minority protesters at Trump rallies that set the internet ablaze. No it was two vastly different trailers, both featuring women in prominent roles, that outraged people the most.

This is the world we live in folks.

It is not all that surprising that the trailers for forthcoming Nina Simone biopic Nina and the latest edition in the Ghostbusters franchise caused a stir, as they have been battling controversy for various reasons for several months now. Unfortunately only one stands to sail through the choppy waters of criticism and make a whole lot of money. As much as certain individuals, mainly nonsensical men who proclaim that the notion of four women taking over the Ghostbusters mantle is an insult to their childhood, Paul Feig’s latest comedy should do fine at the box office. The film, in my humble opinion, looks hilarious and features a talented cast of actresses who can easily pull off the silly tone that made the original film so endearing. Also, the fact that nostalgia is all people seem to want nowadays can only help the film further.

Remember those folks online who cringed at the announcement of Jurassic World going into production? How about those who whined that there was no need for more Star Wars or Mad Max films? Let us not forget the “it’s gonna suck” outcries that came when word hit that a seventh Rocky film, that focused on Apollo Creed’s son, was in the works. How did those films turn out financially and critically? A lot of people ate their share of crow in 2015.

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Unlike Ghostbusters though, Nina does not have the benefit of franchise recognition. Which makes its box office potential even more problematic considering the amount of negative press swirling around it. Despite the cries of boycott by some, or the “watch it to mock it” attitude of others, I still genuinely want to see the film.

The conflict I have though, as a pure lover of cinema, is whether I will be able to watch the film without having the controversy fogging up my lenses. Furthermore, if I pay my hard earned money to see Nina, am I giving it the chance it deserves to prove itself or am I merely condoning the misguided nature of its construction?

Look I completely understand the issue that fuels the fire. Nina Simone was not merely a great musician and a civil rights activist, but a woman whose dark skin made her struggles within the music industry, and in life, that much harder. As has been astutely pointed out by numerous people, since they had to invest so much time and effort into darkening up Zoe Saldana via makeup, an act that many have compared to modern day “black face,” and widen her nose through prosthetics, it would have been more cost effective to simply cast another actress – for what it is worth Anika Noni Rose would have been my ideal choice – in the role.

Considering the string of actresses who have received acclaim and won Academy Awards for having their radiant looks drastically altered to play real people, it is clear that the producers of the film figured they could literally cover up the casting issue. This type of myopic view is what is wrong with the film industry today. Plus, I have no doubt that they thought from a business standpoint, let us never forget that at the end of the day it is a business, Saldana was a far more bankable box office name than others they might have considered for the role after Mary J. Blige left the project.

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As strange as it may sound, I actually feel bad for Saldana in all of this. Cry as we may about the casting choice, at the end of the day Saldana is merely an actor hired to do a job. Since she is literally the face of the film, as altered as that face may be, she is the one being put through the wringer on social media. People are chastising her for taking the role the same way sports fans curse out an athlete for signing a multi-million dollar contract that he or she may never live up to. Yes, she could have rejected the part, but it would be tough for any actress to walk away from such a plum role within an industry where roles this rich for women, especially women of colour, are few and far between.

Frankly, I have yet to see a spiteful tweet or article aimed towards her co-star David Oyelowo, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, or any other cast members in the film, for taking part in the film. Even director Cynthia Mort has not taken nearly as much heat as Saldana has been saddled with. Though there is plenty of blame to go around, most of it seems focused on the one person who had the least say in the overall decisions of the production.

While I would like to believe the Nina controversy will make studios more considerate of the choices they make in the future; deep down I know the mighty dollar will be the difference maker. This ultimately brings me right back to my own internal struggle regarding Nina. If the film bombs, then most likely executives will say “see, films like Nina and Race did not perform at the box office. This is why we need to make more franchises films rather than tell adult stories about diverse individuals” However, if Saldana knocks the role out of the park, which I hope she does, and the film turns out to be a surprise hit, does that inadvertently validate studios to make more of these types of casting choices in the future?

I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.