Before a single frame was shot of Cynthia Mort’s Nina Simone biopic, the simply-titled “Nina”, the claws were already out for it due to the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana. The “Guardians of the Galaxy” star is a very good actress, that much was never in dispute, but did she have the presence to capture the volatile singer and civil rights activist? Nobody expected her to match Simone’s unique singing voice, but can she capture the complicated racial identity that was at the heart of the singer’s most terrible pain? It turns out that Saldana’s performance isn’t really the problem, but the confounding and often shoddy details around her that drive the film down the charts.
Penned by Mort, the film centers on the least active time in Simone’s life, the final years after she had largely been out of the spotlight. The confusion, anger, and paranoia that were so much a core of her being at the height of her career have been amplified, leading to her being thrown into a mental institution after attacking a record exec over “stolen” royalties. There she meets the man who would become her constant companion, Clifton (David Oyelowo), a nurse and the only one there who treats her with the respect she feels she deserves.
For Nina is a handful; a fearsome hellcat with a magical singing voice only matched by her talent on the piano. After helping Nina check out of the hospital, Clifton reluctantly accepts her offer to be her assistant, jet-setting to France immediately. “France is better!”, she shouts at him to seal the deal, praising the luxurious city that had become her home since she lost faith in America. But Clifton soon begins to realize why Nina has a reputation that makes nobody want to work with her. The mercurial star drinks champagne like it was water, blows up over the slightest protestation, trembles in the sunlight, and basically treats Clifton like garbage. He doesn’t tolerate it for long, leaving her to head back home to Chicago, only to have the remorseful Nina arrive shortly thereafter to win him back with an offer to be her manager.
But the central problem still exists: nobody wants to work with Nina Simone. She’s too much of a risk. At one gig she slashes a guy’s arm because he was talking too loud. With the money running out, Clifton is forced to try and turn Nina’s life around if he ever wants to see her back on top. There’s a lifetime of hurt and anger she has to get over, including her broken relationship with her estranged daughter who we see only in flashback. We also get brief glimpses into her time as the voice of the civil rights movement, and how the death of Martin Luther King impacted her feelings about America. In one of the film’s best scenes, a phone conversation with an MS-afflicted Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) triggers a memory of their earliest encounter, before the fame and the drugs and everything had damaged them.
Unfortunately, Mort’s screenplay never clues us in to why these moments are important to Nina. It’s as if Mort feels a need to hit upon them just to mark them off the checklist, but she never puts them in any proper context. Worse, we never truly learn what inspired Nina’s soul-wrenching lyrics; never really get a sense of the isolation she was feeling. Saldana never had a chance of being able to match Nina’s silky voice, but she takes to performing a few of her most notable tracks to varying degrees of success. “I Put a Spell on You” is a particular favorite as it’s heard a few times, perhaps because of issues with gaining the rights to all of Nina’s recordings.
But the biggest issue is Saldana’s shoe polish appearance, which is sure to inflame those already dubious of her casting. Simone had faced hated and prejudice over her physical features, especially over her dark skin, that having Saldana portray her in such an artificial way seems like a slap in the face. To her credit, Saldana does her best to pay the proper respect to Nina Simone, and she plays the role as well as someone in her unfortunate position could. It’s a wonder how much of the blame for “Nina” being such a disappointment falls upon the shoulders of Mort, who has been claiming for a couple of years that the studio took the decision-making out of her hands. Perhaps we’ll never know, just as we may never know everything about who Nina Simone was, because the answers certainly aren’t found in “Nina”.