Film Review: Nina

Singer Nina Simone mounts a comeback with her new manager Clifton Henderson, only to be felled by cancer. Respectful but unsatisfying biopic with serious script problems.
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Hounded by bad publicity, Nina arrives several years after the end of production, a screening at Cannes and a lawsuit over editing. At one point the movie was pursued by Relativity, whose bankruptcy further delayed Nina's release.

The end result is a respectable but dull biography of singer Nina Simone, played by Zoe Saldana in a performance that never quite gels. Saldana sings competently and has carefully thought through her portrayal. But the script, by debut director Cynthia Mort, lets her down.

This is the tragic Simone, the artist in decline. Imperious, peremptory, refusing her meds, ignoring the cancer gnawing at her, she haunts her villa in France, angry and isolated, her bridges burned long ago. It's a facile portrait, one that neither explains Simone's creativity and cultural impact, nor allows much dramatic development.

Mort's premise is that Simone's relationship with nurse Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), formed when she was institutionalized after pulling a gun on a lawyer, helped lift her from depression, return to concerts and resume recording. Hired as an assistant, Henderson has a difficult relationship with Simone, although he eventually becomes her manager. The movie concentrates at length on their arguments, documenting the shifting balance of power between them.

Flashbacks include a well-known turning point in Simone's life, when as a child she refused to perform a recital until her parents were allowed to sit with the white audience. There are also glimpses of Simone's work with the radical left and her friendships with Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) and playwright Lorraine Hansbury (Ella Thomas).

Several scenes show Simone performing in nightclubs and small bars, Saldana putting across acceptable versions of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "I Put a Spell on You," and "Feeling Good," which appears more than once. The filmmakers steer clear of Simone's more engaged songs, like "Mississippi Goddam."

Skipping that element of Simone's life means that the movie misses the opportunity to show her incendiary power, her ability to mesmerize listeners, her take-no-prisoners rhetoric—in short, precisely what made her such an important personality.

These choices rankle more than the movie's more obvious flaws. The lighter-skinned Saldana's casting stirred up controversy with critics and with Simone's estate, as did the script's handling of Henderson's homosexuality. But Saldana's makeup and prosthetics can be rationalized to an extent; reducing Simone's achievements, turning her into a melodramatic stereotype, cannot.

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