The long-awaited big screen treatment of The High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone is documented in the chaotic and confusing story, Nina. Despite arguably one of the strongest performances of Zoe Saldana’s career, even her presence can’t overcome the myriad of challenges from the flawed screenplay.
After a high-energy opening, the story moves ahead 30 years as a rattled and paranoid Simone (Saldana) is admitted for psychiatric care after a volatile bout with a record company executive that she felt cheated her out of her past royalties. It is under the doctor’s care that she meets a caring nurse, Clifton (David Oyelow), who shows her some much-needed compassion and kindness. After checking herself out of the hospital, Simone offers Clifton a job as her assistant – and a plane ticket to accompany her to France immediately.
The full scope of his task quickly comes into focus once he arrives in Simone’s home to discover her aversion to light, her constant desire for champagne and her bouts of insanity and hair-trigger anger. With Nina suffering from a bipolar disorder, Clifton’s life turns into a living hell as he tries to anticipate Simone’s needs while dealing with her various characteristics.
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Eventually, Simone’s abusive behavior gets the better of Clifton, who leaves the embittered jazz musician and returns to Chicago to move on with his life. After Simone becomes further unhinged and her behavior becomes more erratic, she ends up on Clifton’s doorstep, much to the amazement of his stunned family, who are big fans of the performer.
Written and directed by Cynthia Mort (co-writer of The Brave One), her screenplay feels like it skips through various periods of her life, without explaining the context of why these events are important in Simone’s life. There are scenes that feel like they exist only to introduce various relationships of people that were special to Simone (Richard Pryor, Lorraine Hansberry) that are fleeting and simply are unexplained.
Saldana’s physical transformation to Simone is also another huge stumbling block for this biopic as the makeup department truly didn’t do the Black Reel Award-nominated actress any justice. Appearing in much of the film with the effects of shoe polish darkening her skin, the film also commits a huge faux pas. Freely cutting through three decades, Saldana’s Simone never ages which adds confusion to which time period the story is portraying at any given time.
As Clifton, Oyelewo spends much of the movie emotionally mirroring the audience, looking troubled and just disgusted by her behavior – just as we are with the story. After he turns down her advances, she ignores him and has him suffer through liaisons she has with other men under his disapproving gaze.
When the casting of Saldana was announced there were many, including this critic, that was outraged at her choice for the role citing so many other women who had more of a resemblance. So much of Simone’s racial identity stemmed from her physical appearance and feelings of being discriminated against from an early age.
While there were many that could have played Simone, Saldana had an international presence that enticed investors to fund Mort’s project. Of all of the challenges that Nina has, Saldana is not one of them as she tries singlehandedly to prop the flawed story upon her small shoulders and carry it to success. She even sings all of Simone’s songs in the film, which is a shallow imitation but showed Saldana’s commitment to the role.
There are several similarities between Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead in this film which explore musical geniuses during their troubled times. Cheadle was successful in confining his film to two periods over 20 years while Mort freely moves through the decades almost keeping the audience off balance. Much like the Notorious B.I.G. biopic, Notorious, the audience never gets a full sense of what made Simone so special. We glide through her civil rights involvement, her friendship with Pryor (brilliantly played by Epps) and we get brief snippets of her relationships with Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, through photos and press clippings.
On the scale of recent musical biopics, Nina is not an absolute disaster but it is a story that does not accurately represent the legendary career of such an important musical figure. Saldana’s courageous performance is wasted in this film that will leave the audience with the same question that puzzled the documentary filmmakers, What Happened to the REAL Miss Simone?