“Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
Earlier this year, in the span of a single tweet, Cynthia Mort’s directorial debut went from being a movie about Nina Simone to being that movie about Nina Simone. Controversy over Zoe Saldana’s casting as the legendary musician had already been simmering for years by that point — set photos of the actress wearing an afro wig and skin-darkening makeup first caused a stir in 2012, prompting Simone’s daughter to comment that her mother “Was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, and that her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise, [Saldana] is not the best choice.” But the recent snipe from Simone’s estate was far more pointed, cutting the kind of puncture that never fully heals.
The fact of the matter is that, at this point in time, it’s impossible to watch “Nina” without hearing those words ringing in your ears. And yet, the casting snafu is but one of several competing catastrophes that sink Mort’s film. In fact, it might be construed as something of a backdoor strength — if not for the controversy, there’d be no reason to focus on this wan and watered down biopic. Simone’s music will last for hundreds of years — had “Nina” met its initial release date back in 2014, the film would already have been forgotten by now.
Blackness is front and center from the film’s very first scene, where Simone, then a young piano prodigy living in North Carolina circa 1946, refuses to play a recital unless her parents are allowed to sit in an area typically reserved for whites. Cut to Los Angeles circa 1995, an avalanche of newspaper clippings catching us up to speed and accurately anticipating a movie that takes every available shortcut. After pulling a gun on a record label suit, the mildly paranoid and manic-depressive 62-year-old singer is committed to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where she forms an instant bond with a kind young nurse named Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo). “Do you know who I am?” she asks. “I think my mother used to listen to you,” he replies. A few days later, Nina dumps a stack of cash in Clifton’s lap, buys him a plane ticket to France, and offers (or demands) that he work as her personal assistant.
The film becomes equal parts “Sunset Blvd.” and “The Devil Wears Prada” as the action settles into Simone’s airy Nice villa and Clifton submits himself to the abusive servitude of a fading star — imagine Miranda Priestly as a traumatized civil rights icon living in exile and you’ll have the right idea. Clifton tries to heal his new boss, but like a newly rescued animal she can only respond to his empathy and affection with a snarl. He waters down the champagne that Nina takes with breakfast, and she hurls the glass bottle at his head. When he refuses her unsubtle sexual overtures, she calls him a “faggot” (not that it excuses the epithet, but Simone’s daughter has stated that Henderson was gay).
Her manager takes a look at her and says she’s “A fucked up alcoholic drug addict but people will still pay to see her,” but Clifton sees through her volatility. He sees that she isn’t a siren, that she isn’t “special, but rather just a black woman who was doing what she had to in order to not live her life in fear. Refreshingly, “Nina” is never too dire; the film — like Simone herself — refuses to cower beneath the heaviness that hangs over it like a scythe.Clifton passes her tests, he survives her tempests, and it isn’t long before he becomes her manager; together, the two work towards a farewell concert in Central Park, the site where Simone once delivered some of her most legendary performances.
In broad strokes, this is a true story, but a lack of specificity is where it suffers. For Mort, it was enough that Saldana is black. Never mind that Simone devoted so much of herself to speaking out about the importance of celebrating darker skin and asserting the visibility of African-American people. Never mind that Saldana had to dramatically alter her appearance in order to bear even a passing resemblance to the late musician. Never mind what Saldana’s casting says about the lack of financially viable black actresses, or how working around those constraints might betray the ideals that Simone carried like a cross until her death in 2003.
The writing is so generic, the scenes so haphazardly smushed together, the direction so baldly functional that “Nina” seldom reads like a biopic about Nina Simone being revitalized by a new friendship so much as it does like a movie about two people playing fucked up power games in a nice house on the riviera. If only this film had fully committed to being a black “By the Sea.” As it stands, the narrative’s lack of flow or forward movement betrays Mort’s publicly turbulent post-production, during which she took legal action against Ealing Studios for allegedly cutting her out of the editing process.
Things naturally improve when the action hits the road, and the film almost settles into a genuine groove during a sequence in which Nina drops in on Clifton’s (very surprised) family in Chicago. You never forget that Saldana is playing someone she shouldn’t be, but in these scenes at least you remember who that someone is supposed to be.
Perhaps the movie’s problems would have been easier to ignore had they only run skin-deep. Saldana delivers her distractingly affected performance with greater conviction than most could muster under these circumstances, but no amount of ferocity can disguise the discrepancy between the 37-year-old actress (33 at the time of filming) and the 62-year-old woman she’s playing. The illusion is somewhat convincing in the scenes where Nina wears a headscarf, but it’s distracting for the vast majority of the movie — her youth denies the weight of the history that is meant to rest on Nina’s shoulders (it doesn’t help that Oyelowo is made to look a decade or two younger than he did as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma”). We’re told that Simone gets back on stage because “She has to deliver the truth again,” but the film that Mort has made about her never feels remotely determined to do the same.
“Nina” opens in theaters and on VOD this Friday.