Who Was Legendary Singer Nina Simone – and Why Is Zoë Saldana's Movie About Her So Controversial?

The singer and activist's life is depicted in Nina, opening April 22

Photo: Jack Robinson/Getty; Inset: Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock

With songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” Nina Simone earned a reputation as the voice of the civil rights movement as racial tensions reached a peak in the 1960s.

Now, Simone’s life is once again coming to the fore thanks to the upcoming biopic Nina, with Zoë Saldana drawing controversy for portraying the legendary musician. (Its release comes a year after What Happened, Miss Simone, which was ultimately nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar.)

But just who was Nina Simone? In the end, she’s a woman who left an important legacy in both the music industry and civil rights movement.

Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon to a poor family in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. She learned to play piano by ear at age 3 and music teachers nurtured her talent through the years, ultimately raising money for her to receive a scholarship to Juilliard before applying to the prestigious Curtis School of Music for classical piano. The school ultimately denied her entry, which Simone felt was due to racism, according to her official website.

After the rejection, Simone found work singing jazz and blues in bars, and changed her name to Nina Simone to keep the gigs a secret from her mother, a Methodist minister. During that time she also recorded “I Loves You, Porgy,” from Porgy and Bess, which became her only Billboard Top 20 hit in the U.S., and gained high-profile fans and friends including Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.

As her popularity grew, so did her activism. Although Simone hinted at racial inequality in earlier songs, it was not until she released Nina Simone in Concert in 1964 that she sang passionately about the issues of the times. “Mississippi Goddam” addressed the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers as well as the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls and blinded a fifth.

According to the L.A. Record, Simone explained she wrote the song as a “way of my people getting some justice for the first time in 300 years.” She performed the song during the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

The song was boycotted in several states, and another song from the album, “Old Jim Crow,” was similarly received. Simone later made the civil rights struggle a staple of her music, with songs including “Strange Fruit” addressing lynchings in the South, and “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” about the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1970, Simone left the U.S. for Barbados, and when she tried to return she was arrested for unpaid taxes, a protest for the Vietnam War. She returned to the Barbados for an extended stay, but later left for Liberia before settling in France in 1992, where she continued to pursue music.

Known for her fiery temper, she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and died in France in 2003 at age 70.

Now, Nina is drawing renewed interest in Simone – even if her family is not pleased Saldana is portraying the singer and activist.

“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,” Simone’s only child – Lisa Simone Kelly – told The New York Times in 2012, while calling herself a fan of the actress’ previous work.

Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, darkened her skin to play the role, a move some critics liken to blackface.

Tensions escalated this week when the estate of the late singer tweeted Saldana after the actress had tweeted a Simone quote.

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me- No Fear I mean really, no fear,” Saldana, 37, tweeted.

Simone’s estate responded, “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out of you mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Later, the estate tweeted that “Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing. It shall pass, but for now…”

Nina hits theaters April 22.

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