Nina: Not racist, just terrible
Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the news coverage around the film, which has focused equally on the epic shade thrown Saldana’s way by Simone’s estate via Twitter (“Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”) and the filmmakers’ decision to use makeup to darken Saldana’s relatively light-skinned complexion to more closely match the late singer, which has raised the usual concerns about “blackface.”
It’s true that Saldana bears not the slightest physical resemblance to Simone, even with the cosmetic enhancements and the Jan Brady fright wig. Where the film’s makeup crew actually fall most short is in their utter failure to allow any in the audience to suspend disbelief, even momentarily, that this beautiful 33-year-old actress (at the time of filming) could convincingly portray a 62-year-old alcoholic manic depressive.
But in truth, when all is said and done, Saldana is almost certainly the best thing about this muddled mess of a picture. Her performance, while displaying more ham than an Easter dinner, clearly demonstrates that she studied Simone’s staccato mannerisms and haughty affectations pretty intensely. She even acquits herself well behind the microphone, doing her own singing and making the wise choice not to strive for a Simone impression in that arena.
Given a career and a life as big and intense and all-too-often tragic as Nina Simone’s – from 1959’s I Loves You, Porgy through her political radicalization and support for black separatism through her decision, in 1974, to leave the United States behind forever – any biopic would have difficulty finding the appropriate focus. First-time director Cynthia Mort, previously best known as a writer for 1990s sitcoms, chooses as her window the Nina Simone of 1995 — embittered, paranoid and ready to draw a gun at the slightest provocation.
Nina sees its protagonist become enamored with a handsome young psychiatric nurse, played by Selma’s David Oyelowo, who is equally taken with her, albeit in a purely platonic way. As fate would have it, Oyelowo’s Clifton Henderson goes on to become Simone’s personal assistant and, later, her manager, guiding her toward a planned comeback/farewell concert in Central Park, even as he must endure her personal instability, unwelcome sexual harassment and homophobic slurs. In this way, the plot positions Henderson as Joe Gillis to Simone’s Gloria Swanson.
All of which might be a perfectly serviceable, if well-trodden framing device for ruminations on Simone’s life, the passions that animated her and the forces that conspired to keep her down, including her own self-destructive streak. The film does offer some flashbacks, but none that illuminate how such a unique talent ended up so broken down. Meanwhile, the plot never quite manages to shift out of neutral and the hokey and cliché-ridden script does its talented leads no favors. The film’s best moments tend to be its quietest, as Saldana works through the unique facial and body language to express all 36 flavors of “tortured.”
Its billing as a racially problematic film probably isn’t fully deserved. But Nina does manage to accomplish one final indignity that actual racist segregationists and a corrupt music industry and mental illness combined could not: It makes this towering figure of the 20th century appear small.