The odds were already stacked against "Nina," Cynthia Mort's biopic about legendary musician Nina Simone, even before its release. The film has received an avalanche of controversial press, mostly centered on the choice to darken star Zoe Saldana's skin with makeup.
The casting of a lighter-skinned actress is at odds with Simone's Afrocentric politics and the messages of her music, because she was a staunch advocate of the notion that "black is beautiful." Simone's estate has denounced the film publicly. "Nina" also has the misfortune of following the Simone family-approved documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?," which hit Sundance and Netflix last year and was nominated for an Oscar this year.
Unfortunately, "Nina" just isn't good enough to hush the naysayers. Writer-director Mort worked to bring this story to the big screen for more than a decade, and her way into the performer's story is through Clifton Henderson (whose life rights she optioned), Simone's assistant-nurse-manager in the last decade of her life, spent in the South of France. In "Nina," Clifton (David Oyelowo) becomes the emotional center of the story around which the character of Nina Simone spins like a wacky caricature.
It's not the most interesting time in Simone's life, and it's not the best depiction of her, though that's not for a lack of trying on Saldana's part. She's committed to her performance, but she's miscast. No dialect coach or amount of makeup can make Saldana pass for Nina Simone, and the result feels more like a sketch comedy impression than an inhabited performance. The makeup is incredibly distracting, especially because it looks so fake, compared to that of the other actors.
But there are other issues too. The choice to focus on this period of Simone's life via Clifton means that we mostly get a drunk, ill, ornery Nina. The flashbacks arrive willy-nilly, based on phone calls or memories — she calls Richard Pryor, she flashes back to Pryor; she reminisces about the civil rights movement or she talks about her daughter and we see some snippet of that, but it never feels part of a larger whole.
The writing is dull — there's no subtext, and nothing is left unspoken. Characters announce what they're going to do and how they feel, while a running device of a re-created French TV interview underscores the themes of her work. But there's no real thrust to the story. It meanders toward a Central Park concert with no urgency, and even at 90 minutes, the film drags.
There are a few stirring moments, but it never seems authentic or real, just a bizarrely staged re-creation. It's a shame that the wild, fascinating, brilliant Simone doesn't get a better biopic than "Nina."
Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes