Cynthia Mort’s contentious Nina Simone biopic hits theaters today with a limited release and via Video On Demand, nearly three and a half years after it began filming.
By now we know all about the controversy surrounding Nina: the decision to cast Zoe Saldana, the decision to put Zoe Saldana in dark brown makeup and prosthetics, the decision to allow a bunch of white people to make a film about an unapologetically black woman and all the mess that stemmed from those bad choices.
If you’re not planning on seeing Nina—which, let’s face it, probably includes most people—the reviews coming out are doing an excellent job of pinpointing the many, many issues in the film.
Overall, Saldana gets pretty fair reviews for her acting, with most arguing that she did the best with what she had and that her singing voice is surprisingly good, although it sounds nothing like Nina Simone. Still, as we knew it would be, most critics note how distracting the makeup and prosthetics are as well as the fact that 37-year-old Zoe Saldana is supposed to be convincing as a woman in her 60s.
There’s also the bizarre decision to focus on the last ten years of Nina Simone’s life instead of earlier when she was, ya know, doing stuff. And almost every single review mentions or suggests watching the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, instead.
I found it curious that many of the (white) reviewers argue that while yes, the makeup is bad, it’s not the worst part of the film, which must be a nice thing to be able to ignore. Still, the responses are very much what we expected and I’m always of fan of film critics practicing their zingers. Here are some lowlights of Nina and if you want to judge for yourself, good luck finding a showing—it’s only listed at three theaters in the entire Los Angeles area.
But regardless of any knotty racial ramifications, the decision to so dramatically alter Saldana’s visage fails on a purely aesthetic level; her skin tone almost never looks natural, and her appearance here ranges from slightly off to distractingly strange.
No one involved seems to have a clue who Simone was or what she stood for.
Saldana gives a truly terrible performance in “Nina,” especially in the scenes where she is pitching fits and throwing champagne bottles at people, which play as if she were doing some “Mad TV” sketch about a crazy star in a turban.
Until that movie comes along, “Nina” is an affront that should be shunned. If you are unfortunate enough to see “Nina,” you will need to spend a lot of time afterward listening to the real Simone on records and YouTube and anywhere else you can find a place where her intensely moving voice still lives. That voice will never be forgotten by anyone who cares about first-class musicianship.
The writing is so generic, the scenes so haphazardly smushed together, the direction so baldly functional that “Nina” seldom reads like a biopic about Nina Simone being revitalized by a new friendship so much as it does like a movie about two people playing fucked up power games in a nice house on the riviera.
At its core it is an inept, cliche-ridden story edited together in a treacly and cheap manner.
One should never be reminded of Russell Brand’s obnoxious turn in Get Him to the Greek while watching a representation of Nina Simone, and, yet, here we are.
The whole endeavor seems like a bad idea badly executed, and one can only imagine that Simone, a fierce advocate of black pride and empowerment, would be aghast at this cheesy rendition of the later years of her life.
And it is shabby, as well as disjointed, superficial and just plain dull, a dislikable rendering of a tumultuous life.
The whole production is a study in overreaching, and nowhere more so than in a feeble, if mercifully brief, imitation of the peerless Richard Pryor. Shame on all concerned for that.
There are so many interesting movies hovering in the air, none of them the one onscreen.
Nina has been so thoroughly misconceived, on virtually every level, that the only less interesting portrait imaginable would be one that takes place entirely when Nina Simone was in utero.
It’s a technical performance, which is to say it has no real feeling — more sketch comedy turn than exorcism.
However, there is no other way to put it: this is one of the worst musical biopics you will ever see in theaters. At least the Aaliyah biopic was regulated to Lifetime.
Yes, Nina is as bad as you imagined.
Zoe Saldana looks more like an X-Men character than the High Priestess of Soul.
If you can possibly see past the offensive makeup, there is the atrocious script, which is 90 percent fiction.
No biopic is 100 percent correct, but it was as if Mort, who also wrote the film, created a story about a separate person and slapped the title of Nina on it.
The film did not put a spell on me and I was not feeling good. A cinematic insult: Nina Simone would not be proud.
Her makeup is outrageously distracting – this coming from someone who is severely colorblind, mind you – and her age is only established by narrative context.
Skip the movie. Buy some CDs. And sit down in the dark with a drink to experience the real Miss Simone.
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.
The first sign of the filmmakers’ suffocating arrogance is that they think you’ll believe that this walking pile of brown paint and prosthetics is music legend Nina Simone.
“Nina” is completely clueless about what made Nina Simone great.
One gets the feeling that Mort wants to play the hero here, saving that “poor Negro singer” she’s a casual fan of rather than letting her have any agency.
Oyelowo spends the entire movie looking confused, which is perfect because he’s the stand-in for the equally confused audience.
“Nina” is as offensive and insulting as you’ve heard. Even worse, it spits on the legacy of one of the most important African-American performer-activists in American music history
Nina teaches us an important lesson about waiting for a film to come out before criticizing it. For it is only then that we can know how truly heinous it is.
At its best, Nina is cosplay karaoke, with Saldana in front of a cinematic jukebox belting her favorite artist’s tunes. At its worst, it’s an insult.
Nina Simone was a difficult woman, but her movie is impossible.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Saldana’s make-up isn’t convincing. It’s a constant distraction, no matter how expert the music or solid the acting. It does, indeed, look like blackface.
Long after Nina has left theaters, the only thing most people will remember about it is how it was the Rachel Dolezal of movies, a sterling example of Hollywood’s ongoing blind spot when it comes to matters of race.
I hate to say it, but the film was as painful as a UTI. As torturous as getting a tooth pulled. Perhaps even as bad as sitting through a Donald Trump rally. It was bad, y’all. The disjointed Cynthia Mort film is proof of Hollywood’s blindness to its own White privilege. It was the most watered-down, White-friendly version of Nina I’ve ever seen.
Image via RLJ Entertainment.