For months, cultural critics and their armchair doppelgängers at home decried the casting of Zoë Saldana as singer and activist Nina Simone. They slammed the dark makeup and prosthetic nose slapped on the actress in a tragic attempt to make her look like Simone. If only they'd waited to cast aspersions, they'd have realized that the film's problems go even deeper than its cast.
Let's be clear: Saldana is the wrong actress to play Simone, despite having a lovely singing voice. As a light-skinned black woman with Eurocentric features, her casting reinforces the message that dark-skinned women can't even play themselves onscreen. There are other actresses who'd need neither the amateurish makeup (which happens to border on blackface) nor the fake proboscis to portray Simone, and some of them sing pretty damned well, too. (And please don't bother offering Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron as actresses who've successfully changed their appearance for a role. American racial prejudice changes this conversation entirely.)
Saldana also lacks Simone's gravity and resonance, and she sure as heck can't fake them. What she does have is an obvious love and respect for the late singer, who died in 2003. She bellows and sulks with aplomb, but never seems to get inside Simone's head. There is no suspension of disbelief, that magical state in which, for a time, Daniel Day-Lewis truly is Abraham Lincoln; when Angela Bassett almost makes you forget what Tina Turner really looks like. There are no such moments in Nina.
That isn't entirely Saldana's fault, though. Nina was a broken concept from jump. The film concerns itself with a narrow slice of Simone's life beginning in 1995. After pulling a gun on a record executive, Simone checks into a mental health facility. It's there that she meets Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a nurse who pays her some deference and truly seems to care. Simone checks out of the facility to return to the south of France, asking Clifton to come with her as her assistant, and eventually, her manager.
Nina then becomes a biopic about two people: Simone and Henderson. It preoccupies itself nearly as much with Clifton's annoyance at having to prod Nina to take her pills; his revulsion when she asks him to find her dates; and his belief that she can stage a comeback. With all due respect to Henderson and his family, no one's buying tickets to see Clifton's story.
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When the movie does swing back to Simone, occasionally dipping into flashbacks that entirely gloss over her combative marriage and strained relationship with her daughter, it's usually to gawk at her operatic behavior. There simply isn't sufficient material to explain why she became so disenchanted with the United States, how her mental illness became so debilitating, and why her personal life was so lonely. If you truly want to learn more about Simone, watch the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary What Happened Miss Simone?, and skip Nina. With the biopic running a swift 90 minutes, there just isn't enough of Simone in her own movie.
Which isn't to say that there's nothing good about Nina. There is the point that Saldana's singing is often effective. Her voice is higher than Simone's, so she can't pull songs out of her gut like the real Nina did. But her versions of "I Put a Spell on You" and "Feeling Good" are stirring, and her "Wild Is the Wind" is incredibly moving. But in the end, that can't begin to save this ill-conceived, poorly cast misfire of a biopic. At its best, Nina is cosplay karaoke, with Saldana in front of a cinematic jukebox belting her favorite artist's tunes. At its worst, it's an insult.