Directed by Cynthia Mort
Opens April 22
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore, cast Zoe Saldana as the lead, and then fester some more while caked in bad makeup and a false nose? Repeatedly denounced by Nina Simone’s daughter, black public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the public at large (via multiple petitions), there have been few films so viciously attacked before their release as Cynthia Mort’s long-delayed Nina.
But then, this abysmal piece of shit deserves everything that’s coming to it and more. Not only does Nina reproduce the colorism Simone suffered (and spoke out against) during her lifetime through the casting of Saldana, but also inverts the abusive relationship with her husband Andrew Stroud, and casts the lasting psychic scars from their time together as quirky diva behavior to be smirked at. Largely set in 1995, when Simone first met and employed former psych nurse Clifton Henderson (a shameful David Oyelowo) as her assistant, this Lifetime-movie-with-training-wheels offers brief glimpses of her 60s and 70s fame, with brief appearances from Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Pryor. Presumably the grueling work schedule, beatings, and politics that characterized this chaotic period of her life would’ve been too complicated to depict; instead, we’re treated to a scene of Andrew dragging Nina, screaming and holding a handgun, back into their house after she’d learned of MLK’s assassination. (The action is also interrupted with a recreation of an interview with French TV from the early 70s where Saldana attempts to approximate Simone’s Euro-inflected accent… which just comes off like a bad SNL sketch.)
Aside from asking us to believe that Saldana—again, in makeup that is laughably bad—is an out-of-shape 62-year-old who prefers booze to solid food, Mort’s film contains very little imagination or action. Wrapped in bed sheets instead of clothing, Nina loafs around her threadbare mansion in Bouc-Bel-Air and turns down gigs. Clifton—who must’ve been a formidable and complicated gay man—is reduced to a semi-mute, asexual helper type, rolling his eyes as Nina smashes champagne bottles against walls when she doesn’t get her way. In one of the most egregious instances of the film’s attempts at humor falling flat, Clifton tries to get Nina to get back into shape by going for a walk up a hill while twisting her torso; when he pushes her to try, she gives up, and when he throws up his hands, she gives her all. It’s a scene straight out of an episode of Real Housewives, except, you know, it’s civil rights/musical icon Nina Simone made to appear trashy-glam foolish.
And then there’s the film’s other great spiritual crime: Saldana sings Simone’s songs. (In another totally painful scene, Nina duets with a tape of herself singing “Four Women,” a turgid double-cover that helps her to get her groove back.) Simone’s voice is one that spoke of hard-worn experience and had the magical ability to be slightly off-key while beautifully inhabiting every note; Saldana’s just sounds like pilates and green juice. Her attempts to mimic the scowls and movements of Simone’s face while playing the piano also belie her lack of experience, acting or otherwise, and descend into misguided caricature. Although it’s difficult to think of how a director could mask such problems with someone so horribly miscast, Mort’s filmmaking—which is sloppy and full of visual clichés—only pronounces them. As Saldana spins around a room in a fishnet bodystocking to her cover of “Sinnerman” while the credits roll, there’s no trace of Simone’s spirit, real or embellished, to be found. Thankfully, her music speaks for itself—and much of what it doesn’t say can be found in Liz Garbus’s documentary.