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We’ve Read It! Shadow And Act’s Thoughts On Nina Simone Feature Project Screenplay

We've Read It! Shadow And Act's Thoughts On Nina Simone Feature Project Screenplay

I just read a draft of the still-untitled screenplay for the Nina Simone feature film project, penned by Cynthia Mort (Will & Grace, Roseanne) dated April 2, 2011.  The script is based on Nina Simone’s 1992 autobiography I Put A Spell On You, which centers on her relationship with Clifton Henderson, a nurse Simone met while institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital in California.

We know David Oyelowo is slated to star in the role of Clifton. And very recently, we posted Zoe Saldana’s alleged attachment to the film in the role of Simone, but that hasn’t been fully confirmed yet.

The story, although set in the early 1990’s for much of the main narrative – a love story between Simone and her young assistant – is anachronistically told through intermittent flashbacks: an 18 year-old Nina reading a rejection letter from the Curtis Institute; Nina playing at a nightclub in 1962; Nina as a young child refusing to play in her school’s auditorium unless her parents sit up front, and so on.

In one of the opening scenes, an enraged, belligerent, foul-mouthed, mentally unstable Simone, now 60, assaults a cop on her way into the psychic ward. She’s an alcoholic. She’s under the care of a young male nurse (Clifton), whom Nina seems to instantly bond with because he’s black; he agrees to become her assistant and move with her to France.

From here on, Clifton bears the incredible challenge of caring for the embittered, demanding, volatile, promiscuous and alcoholic Simone. However, Simone begins harboring real feelings for Clifton; and a genuinely loving – yet complex – relationship develops between her and the much younger man.

But the real highlight of it all is Nina Simone performing. These sequences are meant to not only capture her genius talent, but Nina’s spirit and inner turmoil. She tells her life through her songs, and also expresses what she’s not able to when she’s not performing.

Other than that however, we get glimpses of her past joys; and also struggles as a Black woman during the civil rights movement in flashbacks: Nina sharing a laugh with Lorraine Hansberry prior to performing To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a song she dedicated to Hansberry; Nina honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at his funeral, and a scene of Nina sharing a joint with Richard Pryor while both reflect on their lives.

There’s more obviously. But, much more is omitted, like her marriage to Andrew Stroud – who later became her manager – aside from a short flashes of an upset Nina rummaging through his things, or of his presence while her only daughter was a baby. Also Simone’s daughter, whom she regretfully neglected as a child due to her work and partying, is only depicted as a baby and a toddler.

Ultimately, the project is meant to honor the passionate soul and sensitive nature – yet resilience- of an immense talent, who, despite her grand achievements, struggled with remorse, insecurity, feeling unloved and misunderstood.

The film’s success really depends on the execution. Perhaps with the right performers, editing, cinematography and direction, this could be an interesting, compelling film. Without it, it could be a mess, suffer from a lack of substance and other ills, like, bad acting.

In the script, Nina’s redemption- personal and artistic, comes through her relationship with Clifton. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps he really did have a great impact in her later years. I’m not sure if they kept in touch through the end of her life.

The script certainly makes it seem that way. Some would call it simplistic and romanticized.

There are touching scenes here, especially between the main characters; but really, aside from David Oyelowo delivering in his role of Clinton, a nuanced, gripping and soulful performance for Simone’s character is key.

It will be interesting to find out the casting choices for Simone at the different stages of her life. A child actor will obviously be cast to play 7-year old Nina. Another actress may be cast to portray Simone from the age of 18 through her 30’s.

But since the story takes place in the early 1990’s, when Simone was around 60, I wonder if an older actress may be cast. However, and most likely, with make-up work, one actress may transform physically from young adulthood and on.

Of course the most current draft of the script may be different from this draft I read, and some things may have changed.

So who else is there left to cast, besides the eccentric icon and High Priestess of Soul, that may be of interest to us?

HEATHER, 20’s, very pretty, a little slicker than Clifton– her race is not specified.  She’s from Clifton’s Chicago hometown. He’s been pining for her for the past five years. She’s in only one scene in which Simone invites her and Clifton, along with Clifton’s parents, out to see her perform.

Clifton’s FATHER, He’s a big guy with a dark engaging presence. Clifton looks nothing like him– There is a pretty long scene in which Clifton’s parents meet Simone at their home.

Clifton’s MOM, pretty – She’s a big fan of Simone.

OLIVIA, a nurse, 30, young, pretty, but serious– She is Clifton’s girlfriend in the latter part of the film. No race is specified, although we can assume she is French and White; in a scene in which Clifton is having dinner with Olivia and her extended family, “No one is black, none speak English.”

RICHARD PRYOR, totally MS’d out, but still Richard – perhaps an older actor would be cast here, since Pryor is introduced in the early 90’s. Another scene appearing Pryor takes place in 1961 while Pryor and Nina wait backstage to be introduced for their acts. Maybe a young actor will be cast?

LORRAINE HANSBERRY, 34 – Set in 1964 Harlem, Simone and Hansbury are “drinking and hanging.” Hansbury encourages Nina to sing and play the piano for her.

Like I mentioned earlier, the highlight of the project is truly Simone’s music. She performs the following songs:

Black Is The Color

Tell Him I Love Him

To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Wild is The Wind

Just Like A Woman

Four Women

Mississippi Goddamn

The King of Love is Dead

I Put A Spell on You

Feeling Good

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Brown Baby

I Shall Be Released

Here Comes The Sun

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The joke of this so called biopic is that Clifton Henderson was gay, had no love affair with Nina Simone and this ignorant director Cynthia Mort not only does not have the support of the Nina Simone Estate or her living daughter, they never even bothered to contact them. This is sure to be a completely whitewashed disrespect to the legacy of the "High Priestess of Soul".


Any consideration of India Aire???


There is a petition started for the consideration of Tichina Arnold to play the role of Nina Simone. She's not just a comedic actress & is a true vocalist. Please don't scoff because you can only think of her as "Pamela James" from Martin. Check out her dramatic turns in "The Lena Baker Story" and her vocals in any number of things. Check out "Tichina Arnold to Star in the Nina Simone Biopic" Facebook page please, then judge. Thank-You:)


For anyone who is not aware, there is a petition on, against the casting, that already has 1,700 signatures on it. I was not able to post the entire link here, but found it by doing a search for "Nina Simone" on the site.


I could see kerry washington in this role easily and perhaps even being nominated for an oscar or at the very least oscar this oculd be a huge opp for her she fits the bill in terms of comericality selling and promoting it she can act and she is at LEAST darkskinned without make up head wrap and jewlry she could easily pass for nina all the others suggested dont have as much recognizablity in europe as kerry does – im british so i know what im talking about as far as kerry being well known.


"a nuanced, gripping and soulful performance for Simone’s character is key." This being said, Viola Davis hands down with Adepero Oduye as a younger Nina. Perfect casting if I say so myself.


While reading some of the comments posted here, I was shocked to discover that some level of ethnic discrimination exists among African-Americans. However, I don't know how Zoë came into the picture but I hope she won't be the one to play Nina Simone 'cause I understand Adepero Oduye was originally picked for that role. Albeit I like Zoë Saldana (she's talented and very gorgeous) but I agree with those who feel Pero (Oduye) is most apt to play the legendary singer and that includes a certain writer who posted a 'Casting Call' article on this blog months ago which emphasized on how Pero looks exactly like Nina.


Two words. Lauryn Hill.


"…Simone begins harboring real feelings for Clifton; and a genuinely loving – yet complex – relationship develops between her and the much younger man…" What kind of feelings did Nina have for Clifton? It could have been nothing more than plutonic considering that he was already in a monogamous relationship…with another man. Ask Nina's daughter.

Miles Ellison

This will not end well.


If it's based on Nina in her sixties, why not cast Whoopi? … Something to think about.


The last thing Beyonce needs to be doing is ACTING! She can't act her way out of a paper bag. Sure, she can sing, but hasn't she played a singer in damn near every film that she's been in? ENOUGH ALREADY!


**DRUM ROLL.. REALITY CHECK**—> "this [is a] art movie which has a very small audience to begin with." Yep, I believe it was also said the original budget was close to 10 million (low by todays standards). Another reality check is the fact that the overwhelming majority of moviegoers knows little or nothing about the life and times of Nina Simone (I believe that's safe to say). So, focusing on her looks will have the least impact on the quality or "success" of this film, imo (if it's ever sees the light of day). Having said that, I have a few questions. Did Denzel look like Rubin "Hurricane" Carter? Nope… they were not the same size ( Denzel is 4 inches taller), nor body type, nor "color". Another: Why did Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar for Dreamgirls? Was it her acting, her singing, the supporting cast, the script, the directers ability to direct black actor s and thus capture the small nuances of the black experience, or the music, or a combination of them all? Having said THAT, can or should a white person ( as ALM mentioned) write the screenplay and do it justice? Personally ( I've had this debate with Tambay (we disagreed)… personally, I'd be hard pressed to champion any film directed and written by a white person, that I believe nailed the small nuaces of our cultural identities, which ultimately personified/captured who we are (in all our complexities)… EXCEPT Taylor Hackford, the writer and director of "Ray". However, having said that, he had help… Ray Charles was still around and he had a wonderful cast of seasoned actors. Additionally, Mr Hackford "lived" with the project look before it reached the screen. But let me go back, Vanessa did a wonderful job with this post… she did her homework. She gave us Nina Simone with all her warts, scratches and problems, without pulling punches nor giving judgement. In essence, through her writing style she pulled me in, captured my attention and then continued to add small tidbits of interesting aspects of the storyline. Also, I love the way she gave us small descriptions of the other character **hugging Vanessa**. Oh, that reminds me, did I ask, how "important" is the rest of the cast? Who can name two actors and characters (off the top of your head) in Hurricane, besides Denzel? Sidebar: LORRAINE HANSBURY has a story all her own. Okay, I could go on about this project because I really liked the way Vanessa set this up and thus peaked my interests. And, since the Zoe Saldana thang has been beat to death, and the other usual suspect (popular actors) have been suggested, I am going to throw Beyonce in the ring. Yes, that's what I said, Jay-Z's Baby's Mama, not drama. Hey, I'm serious. I know some will say she can't act but how did she handle our other iconic figure, Etta James? Etta had a substance abuse problem ( so did Nina Simone) and Beyounce captured the spirit of that, didn't she? Listen, if we're talking entertainment, star power and someone who can sing, Beyonce should be considered. Look, Vanessa said "the highlight of the project is truly Simone’s music". Sooooo, in my opinion, many of the suggested actresses are off the table. Anyway, speaking of Nina's songs, I love Donnie Hathaway's version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It's truly a wonderful song… inspiring too! Check it out–>

Barb B

I won't see if Zoe plays Nina. Call jealousy if you want but we damn well its deeper than that.


be worried. be verrry, verrry worried.


I'm going to 2nd Zoe as Lorraine Hansberry, I think Adepero Oduye, Danai Gurira or Aisha Hinds of True Blood fame would all be excellent choices for The High Priestess. In regards to her looks, I think Nina aged very gracefully and grew more beautiful as she aged and became more assured of herself.


I would LOVE to see someone like Anika Noni Rose play Nina. Zoe doesn't give me Nina vibes. And can Zoe even sing? Because if she can't, she'll be doing a great disservice to the legacy of Nina by lip-syncing. At least convince me that you KNOW what you're doing. Authenticity accounts for something.


beautiful viola should play beautiful nina.


Yeah, I'd like to see Viola Davis play Nina Simone.

the black police

The whole Zoe thing is a marketing ploy to get people talking about the movie. It worked.


Based on this info, I suspect –and hope– Zoe is actually playing Lorraine Hansberry and NOT Nina. That seems like a better fit. *shrugs*


I'm still wondering what qualifies Cynthia Mort to pen the screenplay for this biopic.


Thanks Vanessa! With all that info, it seems unlikely the Zoe rumor is true. With all those flashbacks I can see most of the actresses suggested in the other thread playing different ages in Nina's life – although there will be a toss up between India Arie (does she act?) and Adepero. I hope they don't try to age one actress if the makeup is similar to J. Hud's in the Winnie Mandela movie.

I'm just sayin....

Let's cut to it. Nina was a very unattractive, crazy lady who made great music. Casting the pretty black Latina who is careful to distance herself from her black heritage alienates the black audience of this art movie which has a very small audience to begin with. Why wouldn't you cast Viola Davis in this role? She's prettier than Nina really was but you believe her not feeling pretty about herself.

btw, Mary was also miscast in this film. I'd rather see a Mary J Blige movie about her life than Mary in a Nina Simone movie, and it would certainly make more money.

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