This biopic of legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone is destined to be remembered more for its controversial production than its actual content. Filmed in late 2012 and denounced by the Simone estate, most of the movie’s press to date has revolved around Zoe Saldana’s unconventional casting, and the “blackface” makeup used to make her more closely resemble the singer. As it turns out, we’ve been giving the movie much more attention than it really deserves.
Covering the most chaotic years of Simone’s life as she struggles with substance abuse, financial instability and mental health issues, Nina revolves around her relationship with her assistant and eventual manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), who tries to keep her on an even keel.
Right from the first glimpse of Saldana as Nina, it’s an offputting, peculiar choice; Saldana’s model-like looks aren’t remotely similar to Simone’s fuller features, and can’t disappear under a layer of makeup designed to have her skin tone more closely match the subject’s. Though she tries admirably enough to fill Simone’s lungs for the spirited songs, she can’t really reach anywhere near, though admittedly seems much more comfortable impersonating her spoken tenor.
That’s the point, though; it ends up being a tricksy impersonation rather than a turn that captures the essence of the person. It also doesn’t take a pair of eagle eyes to notice that the badly applied make up often results in her face having a different colour tone to the rest of her body, which is both weird and distracting.
Ultimately, it’s just a bizarre mixture of depressing and comical, from the histrionics of the central performance through to the clear belief from those involved that they were making a profound, honest tribute to the late icon, while the end result is neither. Oyelowo tries hard but is mostly wasted, while Saldana should probably have a stern chat with her agent about throwing her such a suspect project.
Nina is on limited release in US cinemas and available on VOD now