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Director: Cynthia Mort
Writer: Cynthia Mort
Stars: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Kevin Mambo
I won’t lie. The first I heard of Nina Simone was in a 1993 throwaway action remake of Le Femme Nikita called Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda. In that film, a young woman is dragged into a secret life she doesn’t want, made to do things she hates to do but is very, very good at doing. During the film, she is often seen listening to and admiring the work of Simone, and it was because of this that I did some exploring and discovered the breathlessly powerful singer and her story. Over the next few decades, I would revisit Nina’s discography periodically, her music emotionally inspiring, sometimes troubling, but always relevant. Her story is a remarkable one and should be told. Nina, the latest from writer-director Cynthia Mort, wants to be that story, but on every level, fails to give the woman’s life justice, and even for casual–albeit genuine–fans (like me) doesn’t work. It’s a dreadful, shameful mess.
That begins with the already very controversial casting of the talented Zoe Saldana as Nina. There was huge backlash over the release of the film’s first poster which showed the light-skinned Saldana in obvious dark-skinned makeup to give her the look of Simone. It caused a firestorm of vitriol and maybe deservedly so. There’s absolutely no way of hiding that makeup either, as it appears caked on, yet the film makers are almost daring us to see how well it’s applied, showing Saldana in the shower, swimming and constantly splayed about bright white sheets. It never comes off. She wore green for Guardians of the Galaxy. That was fun. This is not. And yet no matter how you feel about the decidedly bad decision to cover the actress in makeup, Saldana’s performance can’t live up to the expectation in this already poorly-made biopic.
Saldana has proven herself time and time again, and will continue to find roles that are a better fit, but here, she stumbles. What comes off more as an uncomfortable impersonation than imitation, feels wrong with every step. There are many moments when it’s just hard to watch, as Saldana’s breathy, low pitched voice tries to mimic Simone’s ticks and quirks, but feels false. She also does all her own singing, which admittedly is a monumentally challenging task, as Nina Simone has one of the most profoundly original voices in music. Saldana simply can’t capture the ferocity and inescapable rawness that made Simone so impactful. That surely must have comes across in the recordings. The film could be forgiven for using Simone’s real voice, but as the filmmakers were not given the cooperation of the Simone family, that couldn’t happen. Saldana has a fine voice and manages to get through a few notable songs, but any fan will surely cringe and go straight to their music libraries when it’s over. And I have to say, it wouldn’t be fair to criticize Saldana either for attempting to portray the legendary singer, as she certainly put great effort into the role, but unfortunately, it can’t find the mark. That probably has more to do with the direction and script than with Saldana.
I must confess that I don’t know much about Nina Simone’s life beyond the limited occasional searches I did over the years. I do know that she had temper and anger issues, but more importantly, was a masterful musician who fused her classical music training with her love of jazz, gospel and folk. Back about ten years ago, I had her on my favorite’s playlists, and after watching this move, put her right back on. There’s something really affecting about her work. She was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights Movements, venting her anger with the tragedies in this cause in song, of which many were in response to great acts of violence to blacks at the time. She openly advocated for revolution, siding with Malcolm X’s philosophy for social change. There is much one should know about her passion.
None of that is truly addressed in Nina, given passing recognition in a few shots and some lines of dialog. What the script is more interested in doing is playing up the relationship between Simone and her last manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) a young nurse who attended to her while she was admitted to a hospital. She hires him and takes him to France, where she plays gigs and grows increasingly irritated with life and takes her frustrations out on him, a man who in real life was gay, but never directly made clear in the film. Instead, he refuses her advances, causing her to use one homophobic slur, but not deterred in her borderline obsession. None of these aspects were true in real life, of course, the teasing relationship on screen a manifestation of the script, and of the studio, an allegation that was made by director Mort, who actually sued the studio over their hijacking of her efforts. She wanted her name stripped off the production but was unsuccessful. Needless to say, the tampering is obvious.
The most disappointing thing about Nina is its blandness, but worse, the uneasy feeling that we’ve learned nothing about this crucial historical figure in the runtime of the film. She was a proud black woman, two descriptors that meant everything to her, but the film thinks that by just having Saldana say this two words over and over, it gives it meaning. It doesn’t. In fact, the film becomes more about Henderson as it progresses, shifting much of the story to his plight in her service. She literally becomes a pouty, whiny figure in the background as he searches for some stability for both himself and her. It’s a shameful glossing over of a black woman whose contribution to her race and gender, not to mention the music industry, deserve far better. The poster reads: Singer. Activist. Survivor. Legend. That’s as far as they got when putting it on screen.