Some movies come into the world already hounded by the Furies, a chorus of angry voices declaring it guilty before anyone’s even seen the full thing. One such film, Cynthia Mort’s Nina Simone biopic, is finally out this Friday after 11 years in development hell, but it’s been getting major pushback ever since Zoe Saldana was first cast in the title role. Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy) is an accomplished and bankable actress, but she doesn’t look much like Simone. That has led to several complaints, including from the Simone estate.
Now that Nina is actually here, does it offer a strong rebuttal to these pre-emptive judgments? Unfortunately, no. Nina is a by-the-numbers musical biopic riddled with every conceivable cliché about “the tortured artist.”
The film opens powerfully, with a young Simone (Vivie Eteme) refusing to play at a school recital until her parents get moved from the back of the theater to the front row. This prompts much grumbling from the white audience, but viewers get the sense that Simone is already used to that, even at such a young age. If she’s going to play music, she’ll do it her way.
Unfortunately, Simone’s prime years of playing music her way are mostly glossed over. Her time as a New York club singer, R&B superstar, and eventual bard of the Civil Rights Movement (the period, one assumes, that viewers of a Nina Simone biopic would be most interested in) are packed into a quick five-minute montage of Simone’s various record covers and related headlines flashing behind Saldana at the piano.
Instead, most of the film takes place in 1995, when Simone brings psychiatric nurse Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) to France in order to be her personal assistant. There’s a reason the position was open: Simone refuses to eat or take medicine, opting to spend her time drinking and sleeping. Clifton tries his best to get her healthy and working again, but his only reward for this effort is a slew of homophobic slurs. He tries leaving, only to get roped back into Simone’s service because … well, it’s not really clear why Clifton would want to work for Nina.
Oyelowo plays him like a blank cypher, which would work better if the whole story weren’t built around his perspective. In fact, it’s disappointing how many of the flashbacks (arrayed erratically throughout the film) center around men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rather than Nina herself. Mike Epps even pops up as Richard Pryor in one, teasing his forthcoming biopic as if he were Nick Fury building a Historical Cinematic Universe.
As a result, the audience isn’t any closer to understanding Nina at the film’s conclusion than they were at the beginning. Saldana does a fine job playing Simone’s songs, but fails to convey the breadth of their maker’s pain. She just acts erratically, throwing glasses and screaming at people because, hey, that’s what tortured artists do on screen. Aside from some clunky expository dialogue and a few concluding title cards, the film barely goes into how Nina ended up so broken. It does try to give her a half-hearted redemption arc, but it fails to take off without convincing the audience why Nina needs or deserves redeeming.
Nina Simone was a complex person who lived a strange life. Her ups and downs were covered thoroughly in Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina, on the other hand, eschews its subject’s complexity in favor of a standard, sanitized biopic, and is much poorer for it. C