Cynthia Mort’s Nina begins with a scene that depicts the incomparable Nina Simone’s dedication to racial equality. It’s North Carolina, 1946, and the 13-year-old Simone sits before a piano, unwilling to perform for a predominantly white audience inside a school auditorium until her parents are allowed to watch her from the front row. They are, and Simone proceeds to wow those who remain in their seats with her technical prowess. Her music is meant to be understood as an inkling of what would become, for many, the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. But the scene, the only one in the film to articulate Simone’s resistance to racial prejudice prior to her fading from the spotlight, more successfully announces the filmmakers’ almost willful sense of self-sabotage: From the dull pastel-like hues of the image, to the saccharine Ruy Foguera composition that scores Simone’s courage, Nina immediately announces its commitment to the sort of broad strokes that reduce a great artist’s life to a spectacle of self-pity.
The controversy surrounding the “darkening up” of Zoe Saldana to play Simone has brought attention to a film that might have otherwise gone ignored by critics and audiences. And it’s a controversy that will forever be associated with Nina. Ta-nehisi Coates, lucidly and passionately, wrote for The Atlantic last month how “it’s difficult to subtract the choice to cast Saldana from the economics of Hollywood.” Coates continues, “Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked.” Indeed, as soon as Saldana appears on screen, the insult to Simone’s legacy is immediate, as all the money that was spent on “Negro Number Two” makeup for this production can’t disguise the fact that Saldana’s face rarely wears Simone’s pain.
But the film’s failure, which is rooted in a very fundamental lack of imagination, doesn’t rest on Saldana’s shoulders. The actress clearly studied Simone’s mannered singing, and while she is herself a fine vocalist, her voice is less magnetic in its flatness than Simone’s, more conventionally feminine, and so she sounds less like Simone than she does a really talented reality-show contestant’s adult-contemporizing the high priestess of soul’s sound. In an interview with a French journalist that’s sprinkled throughout the film, Saldana more accurately captures the cavernousness of Simone’s voice, the way it sometimes heightened, during interviews or performances, when the singer suffered fools gladly (and sometimes not so gladly), even though one remains frustrated by how Saldana conveys feelings that Simone has about her career, her race, and her legacy that the film isn’t interested in exploring.
Most fans understand the fact that Simone, despite some critical success in the 1980s, never really had a comeback, and it was in part because she didn’t fight hard enough for it. In a sense, she simply couldn’t. Saldana may give shape to the singer’s resignation at the time, but Mort is uninterested in its roots. The filmmaker, though, wants to leave audiences with the impression that Simone heroically climbed out of her pit of wallowing despair, anger, drinking, and violence to regularly record music again in the 1980s and enjoy doing so. And because the filmmakers probably felt that a career-spanning overview of the singer’s life was impossible with their limited budget, they drop us into that pit and rub our noses in all the horrors contained within it. Because, apparently, it’s cheaper to depict Simone indulging in debaucherous behavior in the south of France—long after her star had faded and before a free, career-rejuvenating performance at Central Park that never actually happened—than trace the actual triumphs that made her legacy.
It’s a fool’s errand for critics to rag on any film for what it could have been—say, a two-hander between Simone and her friend James Baldwin that would have represented the frustrations that informed both Simone’s music and her downward spiral. But the two-hander at the heart of this film, between Simone and her assistant turned manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), might have accomplished the same. For that to have come to fruition, though, the filmmakers would have needed to grapple—even if it meant indulging in fiction—with their relationship as one possibly motivated by mutual opportunism. Henderson, who died in 2006, is understood to have been gay, and despite rumors to the contrary, is recognized as such by Simone in Nina. But that she reveals her instincts about his sexuality by calling him a “faggot” after he refuses her drunken advances is indicative not just of the film’s hysteric mode of characterization, but how it errs on the side of giving everyone except Simone the benefit of tenderness.
Henderson becomes Simone’s assistant in Nina for no concrete reason, as he initially rejects her money and doesn’t seem particularly drawn to her fame (it’s his mother, after all, who played her music while he was growing up). The profoundly convincing sadness that washes over Oyelowo’s face throughout is easy to read, then, as that of an actor realizing that he’s been handed not so much a plum role as a blank slate. And indeed, Simone treats Henderson accordingly, liberally painting him with her bile until he breaks and leaves her, forcing the singer to follow him to Chicago and offer him the job of manager, sealing the deal with a performance of “I Put a Spell on You” that cringingly reduces the song to the ne plus ultra of Simone’s supposedly sycophantic essence. But this cartooning of a great artist’s life is at least consistent with the subsequent depiction of Henderson and Simone’s working relationship, which includes a scene straight out of a screwball comedy that has him forcing her to jog up a hill while she complains about needing a cigarette.
Which is all to say that Nina Simone deserves better than this. And in at least one scene, Saldana does her right. Simone receives an audio cassette from a young girl performing the singer’s iconic “Four Women” before wishing that Simone would return to New York and perform again. Simone sings along with the girl, and by the end, Saldana’s tears rebuke the film’s redundant, almost perverse depiction of the singer lusting for the audience’s complete attention without ever comprehending that her music actually meant something, and something deep, to audiences all over the word—that it actually helped to shape racial consciousness. And if you consider that the film, in its opening sequence, features a moment where a background actor in the rear of the school auditorium turns to her seatmate and visibly mouths, “She’s all right,” one also understands Saldana’s near-sublime moment of grace is but a happy accident in a film fundamentally unaware of its contemporary smugness.