“An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” reads a headline quoting Nina Simone during the early moments of the would-be biopic Nina. Under this maxim, the movie falls short, failing to live up to the contemporary #OscarsSoWhite movement by casting the light-skinned, part-Latina star Zoe Saldana covered in makeup as the darker-skinned, wider-nosed Simone. It’s a very complicated issue, calling into question many factors, including the role that Simone’s appearance played in her life and work, and Hollywood’s proclivity toward racial imbalance. But we must also note that this would be a bigger factor to weigh in consideration of Nina if it were a better biopic in the first place.
The movie is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe—Saldana may not get the acting awards she probably hoped for, but nor will this be her Mommie Dearest accidental campfest. As a movie about a difficult rich person with an infinitely patient assistant, it’s perfectly fine and entertaining. As a Nina Simone story, however, it is hopelessly reductive, limited by the fact that it’s based on the life-rights of her latter-years assistant Clifton (David Oyelowo) rather than her own. Imagine a hypothetical Ronald Reagan movie called Reagan focusing only on his Alzheimer’s years, and you’re close. Musical icon and civil rights pioneer Simone is hereby reduced to an alcoholic rage-case who sabotages nearly every chance she gets to revitalize her career. A scene where she pulls a knife on an audience member who dares to talk through her set practically begs to be reinterpreted as an Alamo Drafthouse “no talking” promo.
Clifton first encounters Simone when he’s working as a nurse at a hospital where Simone is forcefully restrained after pulling a gun on a record label executive. Impressed by the fact that he actually shows some concern over her and tells her she can leave any time, Simone offers him a high-paying job as her assistant, in France, which seems like a golden ticket. Yet very quickly does he learn that his medical advice as a nurse will not be taken, and in fact being an assistant to such a diva can be an impossible task at any salary. You know how this will play out—she’ll scream at him, he’ll sometimes stand his ground, and eventually mutual respect will develop. Oyelowo and Saldana are no slouches at this whole acting thing, but the movie doesn’t always serve them well.
Writer-director Cynthia Mort has been vocal about the fact that she did not have the final cut, and it shows. The story is not always coherent—for example, we know Nina Simone is ill, yet the film never tells us from what. Clifton’s homosexuality is also hinted at if you know it’s there, but never mentioned unless you count Nina using a homophobic slur when he won’t sleep with her. Nina Simone fans would know these things, but Nina Simone fans would also want a movie to delve deeper. In the end, Nina will play best as a gateway for people who’ve never heard of the woman or her music before. Saldana belts out the tunes with aplomb, and should welcome a few newcomers into the music of the icon she’s portraying.
In addition to the obvious controversy surrounding Saldana’s appearance, there is the problem of her never looking nearly as old as she’s supposed to. The film centers on Nina Simone in her 60s, but Zoe Saldana wearing mostly bathrobes will need more than a few lines under the eyes to sell that. At one point, her former manager derides her as being “out of shape,” to which you’d want to suggest an ocular exam. She may have the prosthetic face of a Nina Simone mask, but that’s the body of nu-Uhura. (If you’ve ever seen a 60-year-old who looks like that, please find out what their secret is so we can bottle it.) The producers may have actually missed a great opportunity to cast both Uhuras—healthy octogenarian Nichelle Nichols can sing and pass for 60-something, and society at large already buys Saldana as the younger her.
All in all, Nina is watchable in and of itself, but I can’t recommend your paying full price for it, especially if you’re a Nina Simone devotee.
Rating: 2 out of 5 burritos.
Images: RLJ Entertainment