Hot Take: What an embarrassing mistake!
It’s a daunting task to bring the life of Nina Simone to the big screen. Last year, not one but two documentaries were released about her life. There’s enough video for Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, to be brought to life without the help of an actress to tell her story. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done but when you make as many mistakes as writer/director Cynthia Mort does with the making of Nina, one has to ask why the hell did she bother?
From the moment Zoe Saldana appears on screen as Nina Simone, it’s hard to look past the attempted transformation. Simone was a dark-skinned woman, thicker build with a wide nose. In an effort to make Saldana look closer to Simone, her skin was darkened. Unfortunately, the result looks so odd, you might find yourself staring at her for some time rather than paying attention to the film as it unfolds. Throughout the film, the shade of Saldana’s skin varies. If there is anything to compare it to in film history, it would be C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man 30 years ago. It doesn’t stop there. Prosthetics were used to make Saldana appear to have a wider nose. Again, the alteration is so unnatural, it can’t help but keep the viewer focused on anything but the look of the character rather than the movie.
There’s more problems in the casting of Saldana than just those obvious failures at physically altering her look. Asking Saldana to sing in comparison to Simone’s is unfair. Simone’s voice is one of the most unique of our time. There’s nothing wrong with Saldana’s singing but, again, it’s a distraction to those familiar with the singer’s work as nothing quite compares (maybe India Arie?) to Simone’s vocals. Finally, there’s the fact that Saldana, in her mid 30s, is asked to portray Simone when she is in her 60s. As the film jumps around through flashbacks, a 60-year-old Simone doesn’t look much different than a 20-year-old version. In pictures, this isn’t the case. It’s not like the film doesn’t get this, either. When Simone reaches out to Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) late in life and they flashback to when the pair met, there is a vast difference in his appearance. While the age of Pryor is obvious — both young and old — the age of Simone can only be deciphered by the timelines put on screen.
Beyond the miscasting and missed attempts to physically transform Saldana into Simone, the writing is also a mess. The script is filled with sensationalized events that all feel doused with a heavy helping of Hollywood. Every event is over the top and some details are left out to create drama where it didn’t exist. The central focus of the film is around Simone’s relationship with her caretaker Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) and their initial struggles after he meets Simone in a mental hospital. In real life, Henderson is openly gay, something never revealed in the film to allow for sexual tension between the singer and Clifton.
The feeling you get from the film is that Mort wants us to know Simone was an unpleasant pain in the ass but so gifted, you just had to put up with her nonsense. The one-dimensional character assassination is a rather awful attempt to sensationalize a more complex, troubled but also courageous woman who defied the odds and had a great impact on the world of music and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. It’s unfortunate this was the narrative chosen and painful to watch.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Music of Simone
Even sung by Saldana (she has a very good voice), Simone’s music is beautiful and prominently featured in the biopic. At least there’s one good thing.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Everything Else?
It’s a disaster.