by Wilson Morales
Who was Nina Simone? If you walked into this movie cold, not having heard or read about the controversy surrounding the casting of Zoe Saldana or not having seen the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which was Oscar nominated and fully supported by the estate of Miss Simone, then you would still leave perplexed by the film that director Cynthia Mort has presented.
While Saldana gives her very best in trying to embody the essence of Miss Simone with equal support from co-star David Oyelowo, both are confined to a weak script and for Saldana, probably the worst makeup job she’s had on the big screen.
Although there is an endless amount of documentaries on Simone, there hasn’t been a feature film on her. Naturally, there would be a heavy interest when the first ‘biopic’ would be shown. Instead of a conventional, by-the-books, cradle-to-the-grave biopic that one usually sees, Mort, making her directorial debut, chose to illustrate one of the darkest periods of Miss Simone’s life without showing any of highlights of what made Nina Simone great, and what her beliefs were.
The film starts off with Simone as a young girl ready to perform in front of a white audience but being defiant until her parents are allowed to sit in the front. Skipping ahead decades later, Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) is with her manager Henry Edwards (Ron Guttman) sitting in the office of her record label not able to understand why she no longer owns the rights to her songs. When she threatens the record executive with a gun, she hauled off to a psychiatric hospital.
Described as a manic-depressive with a penchant for violence, it’s only when Nina meets young male nurse, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) that she starts to get better and eventually released and go home to France. Obviously, fame prevents her from going to jail, standing trial, and etc. Before she leaves the hospital, Simone does offer Clifton a job to be her assistant. He accepts and within a short matter of time, he’s taking verbal abuse, and being thrown things, not realizing what he got himself into.
Clifton eventually stays the course, learns to live with Nina’s behavior until it hits a breaking point, leaves her and comes back again. He goes from being her nurse, assistant, and then manager in record time. He helps Nina through her fits, violent streaks, and comeback, while she herself learns to deal with an emotional and health crisis.
The problems that exists with the film is that it feels as if you walked in during the third act. Although we see Nina perform some of famous songs through her early days through flashbacks, we never get to know who she is and what she stood for and why she sang the songs the world knows. All we get is a crazy lady who has no respect for anyone in her life. Nina Simone was more than what we see on screen and why Mort chose this aspect of her life is baffling?
The story is meant to be told from Henderson’s perspective and that itself is a mystery. We’re never a given any insight or a scene why he chose to take the job, leave the country, take the abuse by Simone, come back and let himself be her manager without any guidance. Who knows what may have been left on the editing floor.
Then there’s the casting of Saldana, who actually does an admirable job in playing the role and without the rights to Simone’s music, she does a decent job doing the singing BUT appearance wise, she’s off by a long stretch. Nina Simone was someone who praised her complexion, and loved her race and culture, which were later heard in her songs. The makeup job on Saldana just killed any effort in conveying the essence of Simone. Besides being hampered by an undeveloped script, the makeup of Saldana didn’t do her any justice. It’s very distracting when one can clearly see how blotchy her face appears at times when there’s a closeup scene or when she’s with Oyelowo.
Overall, it’s best to avoid this film if you know nothing about Nina Simone or if you are a fan. From the start, the casting was an issue before there was a story and when we finally got a story, that also added to the problem. Hopefully, in time, someone will get to do a Nina Simone film worthy of being seen and talked about.