Legendary Woman, Mediocre Biopic: Nina Review

Chelsey Forbes, Class of 2017


This past weekend on Friday, April 22nd, Ealing Studios released Nina, the biographical depiction of Nina Simone’s last few years on earth. The film, released in select theatres one day shy of the anniversary of the singer’s death in 2003, is seen through the eyes of both Simone and Clifton Henderson. First her orderly, then her assistant, and finally her manager, David Oyelowo of The Butler and Selma fame plays Henderson. Actress Zoe Saldana plays Simone, an alcoholic, a drug-addict, and tumultuous personality.

Saldana has faced much scrutiny in playing the late singer, partially due to Simone’s estate declining to endorse the film. Saldana also wore dark makeup and prosthetics to portray Simone. Although Simone has always been a lively and popular figure, interest in her and her life has become a fixture as of late, due to a documentary released in June of last year, which was praised as a real and true depiction of the singer and activist. Despite difficult and often erratic behavior, Nina Simone is one of the most recognizable and influential artists of the last century; and Nina somehow falls short.

Ironically, the movie felt rushed and chaotic, much like Simone. The beginning of the movie shows Simone at a young age, standing firm in her own beliefs by telling her teacher at Juilliard that she is not going to play in front of a large white crowd unless her parents can be seated front row. This unyielding portrayal of a young Simone is at the core of the film, but unfortunately does not carry out in the same way throughout as the first scene does so genuinely.

The picture then moves from childhood to Nina’s decline,  fast-forwarding over her publicized marriage and pregnancy with her only daughter, as well as her career. Nina is shown in a psychiatric hold after attempting to stab a lawyer over missing expenses. She then gains a sudden interest in her orderly, Clifton Henderson. Henderson then becomes her assistant. Although at first reluctant, he changes his tune after he’s given a large cash sum, and the whirlwind of Simone and Henderson in France begins as she tries to revive her career.


There are occasional glimpses of her daughter when Clifton asks whether or not she ever bore a child. Simone’s instability drives Henderson away from her once she brings him to France. In Bouc-Bel-Air, she temporarily regains her career after years of arenas and venues denying her due to erratic behavior. A crucial scene in the film is Nina’s performance in a French nightclub, where she stabs an onlooker in the crowd who isn’t paying attention to her performance. This distance from the crowd often frustrated Nina, because she felt like she was performing for corpses.

Negative publicity surrounding the casting prompted Hollywood honchos to release a statement before the film was released defending their decisions.

The chairman and founder of RLJ Entertainment, Nina’s distributor, released a statement in support of Zoe. “Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent.”

The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance.”

The anger over blackface is not to be overlooked or shunned; yet the controversy over the topic has overshadowed the story of Nina Simone. As viewers, we should be focused on the content, and not the discussion.

Both Saldana and Oyelowo’s performances are driven by pure passion and thorough research, which is evident in each scene. Saldana’s use of her own voice instead of using old recordings of Nina’s showcases the actress’s flexibility. David Oyelowo’s constant vulnerability makes the viewer believe that he really was the only one who cared about Nina’s well being all along.

If you want a complete picture of Nina Simone’s life, skip this movie and watch ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’. To understand the complexity of such a character as the infamous Simone, the entire story should be depicted from start to finish with credible sources and definite plotlines, rather than glazed over, boozy, and scattered scenes of someone who had such a powerful effect on the world.

Photo Courtesy of IMDB.


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