Robert L. Johnson made it clear that he will not shy away from the subject and will continue to address the controversy and defend the film as needed

By Jodi Guglielmi
Updated March 17, 2016 11:05 AM

The distributor behind the Nina Simone biopic Nina is coming to Zoë Saldana‘s defense.

Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of RLJ Entertainment, the production company behind the film, and founder of BET, compared the controversy surrounding the casting of Saldana playing the darker-skinned music icon to how slaves were once treated.

“It’s unfortunate that African-Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves,” Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter. “The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.”

Controversy around the biopic has swirled since its first official poster and trailer were released. Critics soon lashed out online at the mother of two – who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent – saying that her skin has been darkened and she was wearing prosthetic makeup for the role.

“That’s where some of this comes from, when you hear people saying that a light-skinned woman can’t play a dark-skinned woman when they’re both clearly of African descent,” he said. “To say that if I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her’: Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?”

Johnson made it clear that he will not shy away from the subject and will continue to address the controversy and defend the film as needed.

“As an African-American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of, should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role. Many people who are talking about it don’t even realize what they’re getting into,” he explained. “Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We’re not talking about white against black. We’re talking about black against black.”

Johnson urges people to keep an open mind about the upcoming biopic and form their opinion once they’ve seen the film. But ultimately, he said judgment shouldn’t be focused on skin color, but on talent.

“Make the judgement on the talent of actors, make the judgement on the writing, but don’t make it on whether or not Zoë Saldana is as black as Nina,” he said. “You can always say, ‘Gee, I can find somebody who’s blacker.’ Let’s talk about [the film] in terms of giving talented African-Americans a chance to play roles that they’re qualified to play.”

Nina hits theaters on April 22.