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Nina arrives, much like its legendary subject, with baggage. Its casting has been the subject of controversy since 2012, when it was first announced that Zoe Saldana would be playing the eponymous musician and civil rights activist. Casting a Latina (although Saldana claims Haitian roots) as the dark-toned Simone drew complaints of minstrelism and whitewashing, with some of the criticism coming directly from the Simone estate.
It would be hard for any movie to succeed under such circumstances. The good news is that, nearly as soon as Nina begins, the casting controversy slips away. The bad news is it’s because the film fails on so many other levels.
Frustratingly, Nina’s most crucial misstep may be in its boldest stroke. While musical biopics typically trace the rise, fall, and rebirth of their subjects, writer/director Cynthia Mort begins in 1997, with Simone pulling a gun on the president of her record label in a failed effort to collect decades of back royalties. She is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she meets Clifton Henderson—a sweet, handsome nurse (David Oyelowo), who, when she gets out, becomes her personal assistant, companion, full-time bartender, and romantic interest, as well as the champion of her inevitable comeback.
From here, the needle skips all over the record of her life. If this is a greatest hits album, Nina picks the least-accessible songs and then puts them all in the wrong order. In the present, Simone is deeply unsympathetic. She ends a performance halfway into her first song because the audience is talking too much and calls Clifton a “faggot” when he refuses to acquiesce to her advances. Indie filmmaking is not averse to unlikeable protagonists, but Mort errs by never giving context to her instability. If your protagonist is going to be an asshole, you have to tell us why. Instead, the film relies on an assumed understanding of the inequality and racism she suffered as a child and an adult. Does being a victim of racism describe the totality of Nina Simone? I doubt it, but the film would have us believe it.
All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that Nina doesn’t have much of a story. Say what you will about the clichés of the musical biopic, but at least they follow a proven formula. There is drama in the rise, fall, and rebirth of a musical legend, as well as commercial satisfaction. Nina robs Simone’s story of drama by failing to dramatize her fall or find catharsis in the rebirth.
And so the casting, which got the only publicity Nina deserves, become irrelevant. Saldana deftly mimics the idiosyncrasies of Simone’s speech, but she never captures her anguish. Maybe no actress could, but casting a 37-year-old to play Simone, in her 60s for much of the film, adds to the degree of difficulty (see Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar for an even better example). Oyelowo seems to be keeping a low profile in the film, which is just as well as he may hope that people will forget he is there. On the other hand, Mike Epps does a terrific Richard Pryor in a short onscreen stint, but these scenes are tainted by the realization that they have no purpose other than to show off his impression and, more to the point, Pryor’s comedic energy. In two scenes, Nina captures Pryor better than it does Simone in 90 minutes, and that should be a pretty big controversy in its own right.
Nina opens at Hoffman Center 22 and Magic Johnson Capital Center 12.