There was no hope for Nina being a successful movie. The biopic of musician and activist Nina Simone was already a failure by reputation due to the tone-deaf casting choice of its leading female. Zoe Saldana plays Simone, a 37-year-old actress whose light complexion and delicate features needed to be darkened and filled out in order to resemble the 62-year-old musician. The fury of negative press would have overshadowed even a good movie, but first-time director Cynthia Mort’s take on the life and career of the prolific Simone is uninspired, misguided, and tedious.
Also the writer of the film, Mort chose to set Nina in 1995, towards the end of Simone’s storied career when she’s broke, drunk, and generally maligned by music industry professionals. Her temper and erratic behavior precede her so much that playing music, the one thing that can help give her life meaning, becomes impossible. The course of this unfortunate plot is determined entirely by the ill-considered notion that Simone’s washed-up-ness was narratively more compelling than the parts of her life that made her that way.
The real-life Nina Simone was a classical pianist prodigy that was subjected to such an astounding array of bigotry (including an infamous denial into the Curtis Institute because of her race) that in order to make money she played jazz and sang in Atlantic City night clubs. She was also a victim of domestic violence and mental illness, and a militant follower of Malcolm X (a fact that happens to be directly contradicted by this film.) She was so despondent about how she was treated by her country based on her race and gender that she fled to France in protest.
Simone’s disillusionment was real, and there’s much evidence to suggest that her difficult behavior was as well. But Nina fails its subject by glossing over the crucial touchstones that gave that behavior context. It portrays a demanding and impatient diva, drunk on more than just adoration, and bothers little to explain why except through a hackneyed montage and snippets of exposition-heavy interviews. There’s also little to be said for her creative influence other than through a couple of insignificant, minute-long scenes with Lorraine Hansberry (Ella Thomas) and a young Richard Pryor (Mike Epps).
Nina is so disjointed that often it feels like it’s telling the story of David Oyelowo’s Clifton Henderson, a nurse who met Simone while she was receiving psychological treatment then followed her to France for seemingly no reason other than minimal financial gain. As an outsider to the music world and someone unfamiliar with her brand of mania, Clifton becomes the logic to Simone’s neuroticism. The audience is then forced to empathize with Clifton, even though the lack of direction for his character gives him little room to act beyond the realm of sullen, inconvenienced, and confused.
There are brief glimpses of the kind of movie that Mort was trying to make. In a scene towards the end of the movie, Simone listens to a cassette recording of young girl’s version of “Four Women,” and is so moved by the tribute she plays piano and sings along. In this moment, it seems that the film could be about identity, and how to foster a sense of self while the forces of the world pass their own judgments. But Nina neglects to sustain any sense of purpose for its protagonist, and by the film’s final scene, what is meant to be an uplifting transformation holds little redemption. Instead of a tortured woman validated by her own perseverance, Nina shows what it so wrongly showed all along: a miserable alcoholic longing for admiration.