Longtime Nina Simone Collaborator Al Schackman Weighs in on Film's Controversial Casting: 'Nobody Could Do Nina'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

Al Schackman wasn’t surprised by the uproar over the casting of Zoe Saldana as the late legendary singer Nina Simone in the new biopic Nina. “I kind of expected it,” Schackman, Simone’s musical director, guitarist, and friend of 46 years, admitted to Yahoo Movies. “In a way, I was surprised by the casting, but there was no one else that I thought of that came up.”

Schackman is in a tough position in that he consulted on and even appears in Nina, written and directed by Cynthia Mort, but has obvious loyalties to Simone, who died of breast cancer in 2003. The musician’s diplomacy feels genuine, especially given his candid thoughts on some of the film’s other aspects. In his eyes, Saldana, or original star Mary J. Blige, or fan favorite Viola Davis — they’d all have an uphill battle in portraying the iconic songbird. “Nobody could do Nina,” he said.

It was Saldana who ultimately landed the role of the singer and civil rights activist, and who performs impressive covers of Simone tracks, in the film. Her casting was met with loud derision among Simone’s family and fans, however, especially when the first trailer for the film revealed the Afro-Latina Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy star, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, had darkened her skin for the part. Simone’s brother Sam Waymon told TMZ that hiring a light-skinned actress was “raping Nina’s legacy.” And Simone’s estate targeted Saldana directly on Twitter, telling the actress to “please take Nina’s name out your mouth.”

Schackman said such criticism is “very harsh,” and he generally had positive feedback about the actress’s performance: “There were a couple of scenes where she really nailed her behavior. She did a very studied portrayal of Nina, as best as anybody could. And I think as fine a job as singers could’ve done in that.”

Al Schackman at the Sundance Film Festival (AP)

Soul star Mary J. Blige was linked to the project as far back as 2010, but Schackman sounded relieved that the “Real Love” singer dropped out. “If it had Mary J Blige singing, you would’ve heard Mary J Blige singing Nina, or any other vocal star,” said the musician, who recruited many of Simone’s original band members to Capitol Records in Los Angeles to record 16 backing tracks for Saldana to sing over. “But having Zoe do it, you’re not identifying with a major vocal star, which I think was a plus. You had an interpretation of the music.” (Interpretation is a key word for Schackman: He said he’s been misquoted in the press for saying that the film presented a “fair composite of Nina’s life.” But as he wants to clear that up: “I never said that. I said that it was a fair interpretation of just a part of her personality.”)

The Oscar-nominated Davis (The Help, Doubt) has topped listicles on performers who should have played Simone; Schackman believes Davis passed on it (which Yahoo Movies could not confirm). “But Viola Davis couldn’t sing a lick,” Schackman said. “Then you would be getting an overdubbing.” (Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, was in favor of either Davis or Diary of a Mad Black Woman star Kimberly Elise taking the role.)

Earlier this week, Schackman wrote an op-ed in Huffington Post in which he revealed Simone’s surprising choice to play her: the classic (and white) movie star Grace Kelly. “She really identified with the elegance and class of Grace Kelly, race and color notwithstanding,” he wrote. Schackman admitted Simone was saying so tongue-in-cheek, but it opens up the possibility that maybe the singer would have have felt her legacy was being tainted (or worse, “raped”).

So how does Schackman think Simone would have reacted to Saldana’s casting? “I’m not sure. You never know. With Nina, I never knew. Sometimes she would react to something and my jaw would drop.”

While the film time-hops a bit, Nina mostly takes place in the mid-‘90s. The down-and-out Simone, who is decades past the height of her fame and suffering from bipolar disorder, meets the young and handsome nurse Clifton Henderson (Selma’s David Oyelowo), whom she convinces to act as her assistant/caretaker. Living abroad after publicly declaring the U.S. a racist nation, the Simone takes Henderson to her French countryside home. The singer still occasionally performs in small venues across France, but hostility and violence have gotten her blackballed from most. Henderson ultimately becomes her manager and helps plot her comeback.

Saldana and Oyelowo in ‘Nina’ (Suzanne Tenner)

Schackman was contacted six years ago by Mort, a veteran television producer (Will & Grace, Roseanne) making her directorial debut, to help “authenticate” her screenplay. He recalled that he was initially “quite troubled by her script, by the way she portrayed the relationship between Clifton Henderson and Nina as a romance. I told her that that was impossible since Clifton was gay.” Even early cuts of the filmed version still hinted at romance between the two, which Schackman’s continued feedback helped correct.

Schackman also doesn’t love the final cut’s portrayal of Simone as a generally hostile person. “It focuses on her anger and some violence,” he said, while noting that Simone, who, in addition to being bipolar, abused alcohol and drugs, did at times threaten people with a gun or knife, as fictionalized events in the film play off. “There were other aspects to Nina’s personality, other than that. She was playful, she was many more things than what’s in the movie,” he said before recalling one experience where Simone surprised him by driving them to the Dutch countryside to go gliding. “Explosive anger was one of Nina’s characteristics. But certainly not the dominant one.”

Ultimately, though, Schackman’s critiques of Nina come with a caveat: he feels that her story, and her persona, are essentially unfilmable. “Unfortunately, the movie, like any other possible movie that could have been done on Nina, could only turn out to be two-dimensional. It would be impossible to capture all the nuances of Nina in one movie. It would never happen. This movie, like any other movie that would’ve tried, suffers from that.”

Even last year’s Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary What Happened Miss Simone?, in which Schackman also appeared, couldn’t fully capture the icon’s essence. “You couldn’t get all of Nina in one sitting,” he said. “You need 10 parts. You need Ken Burns to do Nina in a 10-part series.”

Nina opens in select theaters Friday. Watch the trailer: