Nina (2016)

  • Time: 90 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Music
  • Director: Cynthia Mort
  • Cast: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Mike Epps


The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson.

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  • Nina Simone was a great many things – singer-pianist, activist, an unapologetically black woman – but boring she was not. Like many artists, she was a multitude of complications and contradictions. Like many women, she struggled to assert her individuality and worth in the face of marriage, motherhood, career, and societal standards of beauty. She was a fighter and her arenas were numerous and sometimes unexpected. Nina Simone, in short, had a life so rich that one could follow any entry point and be rewarded with a view not only of the woman but of the society and culture in which she lived.

    The new film, Nina, written and directed by Cynthia Mort, finds Simone in her later years when she was living in a self-imposed exile in France and under the care of her much younger nurse-turned-manager Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo). “I think my mother used to listen to you,” he responds in one of their early exchanges. Simone’s peak years may be behind her, but she is still celebrated in Europe. Her volatile behaviour, however, has relegated her performances to modest venues. At home, she’s content to drink bottle after bottle of champagne, smoke, and bellow at Henderson, who is nonetheless determined to help her reclaim as the High Priestess of Soul back in the United States.

    This Sunset Blvd. approach to the narrative is problematic to say the least. For one thing, Henderson is such a nebulously drawn character his position as fellow polestar is incongruous at best. This film is titled Nina, after all, not My Weeks with Nina. If Henderson is meant to be the perspective through which the audience views Simone, then that’s a grave miscalculation on Mort’s part. For one thing, it renders Simone as a capricious and obstinate diva. Yes, Simone was difficult but her character was defined by decades of racism, not to mention an abusive marriage.

    Indeed, Mort divorces her version of Simone from so many essential elements of her subject’s life that the numerous flashbacks resemble flotsam and jetsam rather than crucial puzzle pieces to Simone’s personality, musical genius, and political activism. We see Simone playing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry (Ella Thomas), but there’s no sense of that song’s significance, not to mention Hansberry’s influence on Simone’s social and political consciousness. We see snippets of Simone’s interview with a French journalist (Michael Vartan), which are intended to emphasise Simone’s contributions but also to have Simone give voice to her motivations – why was she so politically minded, how did she feel about the racism she encountered time and time again – but these pieces, like so much of the film, are holographic moments that shed little light on Simone.

    The casting of the lighter-skinned and more delicately featured Zoe Saldana has been garlanded in controversy from the start. Cultural issues aside, the problem with Saldana as Simone has nothing to do with the darkening of her skin, the prosthetics used to broaden her nose, or even that she’s playing a character twice her current age. Saldana may have been better off not resembling Simone. After all, did Diana Ross look like Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues? Was Angela Bassett a genuine mirror reflection of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It? As for playing someone older, Marion Cotillard was so physically convincing as the aged and frailer Édith Piaf in La Môme (La Vie en Rose) that it was difficult to believe that it wasn’t another, far older actress playing the elderly Piaf. The point is, performance should always win out over appearance or verisimilitude.

    Saldana is not bad as Simone. Given a stronger screenplay and direction, she may actually be a very good Simone. The actress captures Simone’s vocal tone and her singing is admirable even if it doesn’t fully contain Simone’s transformative power. There are times when the ferocity vibrates from every pore of Saldana’s being, and one can see glimpses of Simone’s spirit within her. Yet there is no denying that Saldana lacks the resources to offset Mort’s misjudgments and failings. Seek out Liz Garbus’ documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, for a more lucid and riveting portrait of the incomparable Simone.

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