Nina Simone deserved a better biopic. Nina—starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, opposite David Oyelowo (Selma) as manager Clifton Henderson—details the period of Simone’s life on the comeback trail. Camera-friendly footage of her years in the South of France, picturesque 1970s costume design and plenty of Simone classics (“I Put a Spell on You,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” etc.) prop up the film nicely. But given Saldana’s horrid makeup job, getting through Nina is like enduring a conversation with someone who’s got spinach in her teeth.
Saldana’s essentially blackface performance (with nose prosthetics and false teeth) makes you fight against the film and start seeing several of its dramatic moments with the side-eye of skepticism. Did Simone ever truly pull a pistol on a record executive to demand back-payment royalties? (Yes.) Did she really knife an inattentive audience member in Paris during a café performance for talking throughout her show? (No.) Such set pieces recall the recent Miles Davis film Miles Ahead, full of scenes that actor-director Don Cheadle freely admits never happened. For the full truth, find last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
Nina focuses on a sixty-something High Priestess of Soul fighting bipolarism, alcoholism, an eventual breast cancer diagnosis and her own unnamed inner demons to reclaim her career. Her chaste yet loving relationship with former nurse Clifton Henderson takes center stage; most of Nina boils down to their acerbic discourse. Zoe Saldana fights the good fight for her role, from Nina Simone’s admittance to a psychiatric hospital for manic depression to a triumphant comeback concert in Central Park for the film’s finale. But a poor script and the distracting make-up torpedo the movie from its very beginning.
The racist economics behind choosing Zoe Saldana for the role to begin with are more fascinating than the movie itself. Hollywood logic holds that Saldana’s blockbuster record (Avatar, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy) makes her the obvious choice to portray Nina Simone above and beyond more credible choices (Viola Davis). But the catch-22 is that actresses who fall short of satisfying Hollywood’s beauty standards don’t get cast in the blockbusters that bolster their résumés like Saldana. When Nina inevitably falls flat at the box office, maybe Hollywood will reconsider the paradox.
NINA opens in theaters today.
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