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‘Nina’ biopic can’t live up to the potent legacy of Simone

Zoe Saldana stars as embattled jazz singer Nina Simone in "Nina." |RLJ ENTERTAINMENT

In an interview with Rolling Stone last month, Lisa Simone Kelly, the daughter of the late, great jazz/blues artist Nina Simone, voiced her extreme displeasure with “Nina,” the latest biopic of her legendary mother. Simone Kelly’s comments were fueled by a social media storm that erupted over the casting of the light-skinned Zoe Saldana to play Simone, who was of darker complexion:

“There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses. And ‘Nina,’ in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”

True, even with a prosthetic nose and heavy makeup, Saldana only slightly resembles Simone. But that’s not the only issue with the film, written and directed by big-screen newcomer Cynthia Mort. Filmed in 2012, and (unfortunately) released in the wake of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “What Happened Miss Simone,” “Nina” never decides what it wants to say or where it wants to take us.

“Nina” zeroes in on the last 10 years in Simone’s ever-troubled life. In between a childhood piano recital in 1946 segregated North Carolina and her death in 2003 following a near-impossible comeback, we come to know only bits and pieces of Simone’s life: her troubled marriages, her alcoholism and rage-fueled outbursts, her bipolar disorder, her severe depression, her self-imposed exile in Europe, and a devastating health issue. We are treated to various Simone hits — some blistering (the powerful “See-Line Woman”), others haunting (“Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” will tug at your soul), still others sizzling (the sexy “Feeling Good”), all of them a reminder of what a genius of voice (and piano) she truly was. Saldana does a fine job of delivering the lyrics — a daunting task for any actress required to step into those vocals, but fans of Simone will be aching for the real deal.

As the film delves somewhat deeper into Simone’s world, we feel her anguish when a college-aged Eunice Kathleen Waymon (her real name) wants to pursue further classical music study at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music (she had already studied at Juilliard) and is denied entry (the singer steadfastly maintained it was because of her race). She heads to Atlantic City to pursue a living as a musician in local jazz clubs (where she adopts her new stage name), and is told she must also sing. As she recalled to a French television interviewer years later (one of several instruments of juxtaposition Mort utilizes throughout the film): “They wanted black women to sing. That’s what we do, isn’t it?”

David Oyelowo and Zoe Saldana star in the biopic "Nina," based on the life of singer Nina Simone. | RLJ ENTERTAINMENT

David Oyelowo and Zoe Saldana star in the biopic “Nina,” based on the life of singer Nina Simone. | RLJ ENTERTAINMENT

With her career waning, Simone’s manic behavior grows more violent. Following one of her enraged outbursts, Simone (now in her 60s, though Saldana’s character seems much younger) is admitted to a hospital where she is cared for by a nurse named Clifton Henderson played by David Oyelowo (so riveting in his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma”), a young gay man from Chicago, who eventually is lured to the South of France to work as Simone’s personal assistant (not as glamorous as it sounds, he quickly learns) and later her devoted manager. It is here he realizes her rock-star status in Europe, not to mention her penchant for all-night parties and lust for champagne. Her joie de vivre is countered by Clifton, who is so understated, so subdued, containing his emotions at every turn (save for one potent scene as he finally hears what Simone’s vocals can truly achieve).

“An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” we are told early on in the film. And Simone embodied that truth in word, deed and music. She is not afraid to speak her mind — loudly. As a montage of archival newspaper clippings about her fill the screen, a headline screams “Disgruntled Simone leaves ‘racist’ America.” Later in the film, the French interviewer calls her “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement in America.” When King is assassinated, her world is shattered; she leaves America behind just two years later.

“I am a black woman, that’s who I am. I am not different,” Simone proclaims. But Simone was different. There was a truth and an honesty in her artistry. And there is so much more to her story than “Nina” delivers. Thankfully you can find more; it’s all right there in her music. Seek it out.


RLJ Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Cynthia Mort. Runing time: 90 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at Showplace Galewood 14 and AMC Loews Woodridge 18, and on demand.