From the beginning, “Nina” has been an uphill climb.
On Wednesday (the day theaters announce what will be playing on Friday) there were no theaters slated to play Nina on Movieclock. I thought maybe the April 22nd release date would be pushed back again. Then around 6 p.m. one theater in New York and one in New Jersey had picked it up. By Friday, the New Jersey theater was out and another New York theater was added. I thought this film had been set up to fail.
I planted myself into my seat at the theater, along with the other 10 or so people who were in attendance, and opened my mind to whatever I was about to witness. Expecting nothing, I was rewarded with a strong attempt to emulate and embody Eunice Kathleen Waymon a/k/a Nina Simone, by Zoe Saldana. I have to say, the movie wasn’t bad; but in many ways, neither was it good.
Zoe did a fine job. She did her best to portray Nina Simone in “Nina,” a film written and directed by Cynthia Mort. Anyone can easily see the amount of work Zoe put into this role. Through terribly distracting make up and weak direction, Saldana was able to effectively, albeit unevenly, portray a character many believed she could not pull off.
As we have learned throughout our now extensive experience with biopics, because the film was made without the approval (and in this case despite the loud protest) of those who embody the subject’s estate, Simone’s actual recordings could not be used. Zoe sang all of the songs in the film, and she sounded good. Did she sound like Nina? Of course not. Her voice lacked the low, gravelly, soulful sound of Simone’s, but she was able to give a strong rendition of each song performed. Zoe’s singing is actually one of the brighter, fresher notes of this film. I mean, who knew Zoe sang? This role allowed her to show a side of her talent she’s never shown before, and it was a bold debut.
Quite unfortunately, the makeup was problematic, and did take away from the movie; providing 90 minutes of torture and acting as a distraction in nearly every scene. The makeup/prosthetics became a character in the movie in and of itself. More uneven than Zoe’s acting, the cosmetics and foundation were inconsistent from scene to scene. In one scene “Nina” is wearing a towel. Darkening makeup was used for her face, arms, hands and upper torso, but her legs were left bare! In some scenes the prosthetic nose used to capture the “look” of Simone was credible, and in others her nose looked like it was simply stuck on with bad blending of makeup surrounding it. The makeup on the hands and face were uneven at times, most notably when the hands were shown during piano playing scenes. From scene to scene, Nina’s makeup went from caramel to brown and back again, and many shades in between. Given the surrounding controversy regarding Saldana’s “coloring,” or lack thereof, it was imperative to execute her makeup seamlessly. The inconsistencies were glaring and inexcusable.
At times the film made me laugh out loud, but failed to deliver any genuine tension or tears. Nina Simone was depicted as a washed up, mentally ill, alcoholic, bitter, angry, out of control, faded star who needed rescue, and for whom, at times, it was hard to feel compassion because she was so “tough.” The “rescue” came in the form of David Oyelowo’s character, Clifton Henderson, who was Nina’s manager in her final years and is the man whose story is fictionalized in this film.
Oyelowo’s performance came off as flat, with a “calling it in” quality. I believe this was intentional – to contrast Henderson’s cool demeanor against Nina’s hot temper and fiery tongue – but it did not work. His character was whisked off to France by Simone on a whim after meeting and helping to treat her in a Los Angeles mental institution she had been ordered to following an arrest. Henderson wound up leaving Nina and returning to the States out of frustration because he couldn’t “handle” her, was pursued and convinced to return, poured himself into getting her and her career back on track; and yet I felt nothing from him or really for him. It felt as though he were playing a janitor charged with cleaning up a rest room. On the one hand, watching Zoe as Nina was an emotional pull in all directions; chaotic and complicated, like Simone herself. But the contrasting evenness of the Henderson character left me frustrated, never arriving at the feeling of triumph which should have accompanied the resuscitation of her career in her final years, because there was no character to feel it through.
The movie lacked a certain “freshness” which may be the result of a recent “Nina Simone saturation” and poor movie release timing. Two 2015 documentaries, “What Happened Miss Simone” and “The Amazing Nina Simone,” contained so much archival footage which showed the best portrayal of Nina Simone, “acted out” and told first hand, it feels as though this fictionalized movie is some sort of afterthought.
Writing and directing a film allows for artistic control. There is no one to heap accolades on for the success, or blame for the failures of “Nina,” except Cynthia Mort. The ability to build one’s project and have it turn out exactly as it is envisioned is a rare opportunity which involves diligently doing one’s homework, sometimes putting one’s personal life and/or career on hold and pouring one’s soul into a creation. Aside from Zoe’s acting (at times), I did not feel the soul or “passion” in this project. Maybe the pressure of all the criticism and distraction got to Mort. I don’t know. But when Zoe dropped character or the makeup was not up to standard, the director should have been yelling “Cut!” and sending Zoe back in for retouches or having her redo the scene. This did not happen. And that is quite unfortunate for Saldana, because her performance was not flawless, but again, it was strong.
Mort did make the right call in sticking to her guns and casting Saldana, as Zoe did a good job. I’m glad about that much. Zoe, I rooted for you and you delivered to the extent that you could under the circumstances. You pulled your weight, did your part and proved yourself. With more consistent makeup and firmer direction, you might have had a nomination on your hands. Maybe next time.