Most of the pre-release controversy surrounding this movie is the debate about the way Zoe Saldana darkens her skin, dons an afro wig, and wears a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone (1933-2003). Apparently, some consider the casting of Saldana as the dark-skinned title character to be not quite politically correct, since she is of Dominican and Puerto Rican extraction and thus, by implication, not black enough to play an African-American.
The beleaguered actress was criticized so much by the press that she’s even publicly admitted that “I didn’t think I was right for the part.” However, I suspect anyone who sees the film would find Zoe’s Africanized features to be less of a distraction than her singing.
Although she certainly manages to hold her own, Nina’s fans will undoubtedly be disappointed by the absence of the haunting strains of her distinctive voice rather than by Zoe performing in blackface. It’s frustrating to have to settle for second rate renditions of such Simone classics as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Feeling Good,” “Black Is the Colour,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).”
Fortunately, Zoe does a better job in the acting part of the role, convincingly capturing Nina’s mercurial personality, from her imperious air, the violent mood swings, the substance abuse, and the bouts of depression and self-doubt. The movie is the writing and directing debut of Cynthia Mort who reportedly distanced herself from her own production, and at one point even sued over the final cut because she had lost creative control over the editing.
The story unfolds in North Carolina in 1946 with an adolescent Nina showing promise as a classical pianist. From there she moves to New York in 1965 where we learn that the once-promising prodigy is now playing jazz in nightclubs after dropping out of Juilliard.
The narrative then shifts to Los Angeles in 1995, where we find her on the downside of her career. She’s just been committed to a mental hospital after being diagnosed as an alcoholic, paranoid, and bipolar.
Fortunately, Nina was assigned an empathetic nurse, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), who took a special interest in her welfare. Not only did he help her leave the facility but he quit his job and accompanied her to France to become her personal assistant.
Their relationship, which would last until the end of Nina’s life, is the focus of this warts-and-all biopic. Clifton spends time cleaning up the verbally abusive, chain-smoking, substance-abusing, star’s act, and he tries to find her gigs.
Aside from the singing, Zoe Saldana delivers a decent Nina Simone impersonation.
Very Good (***). Unrated. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: RLJ Entertainment.