Deep into her earnest, uncertain Nina Simone drama Nina, writer-director Cynthia Mort at last musters up a sequence of gravity and power. The inimitable Miss Simone — imitated here by Zoe Saldana — reads a letter from a woman who has recently lost her mother, a great Simone fan.
It's the mid-'90s, decades after Simone's best work, and this towering performer is drinking hard, off her meds and impossible to book. (She slashed a paying customer with a knife.) The letter writer includes a cassette recording of herself at a piano, striking the stark chords of Simone's 1966 masterpiece “Four Women.” The woman sings Simone's blunt declaratives — “My skin is black,” “My hair is woolly,” “My back is strong” — and, at last in Nina, it doesn't matter that the voice is wrong: This is a woman inspired by Simone, and she's not meant to be Simone herself.
As that letter writer plays on, Simone — or the movie's guess at her — listens, smiles, even sings along a little herself. Like her fans, like the filmmakers, like anyone discovering her work today, she's awed by that song, by that sound, by how Simone honored the everyday truth of black women's lives in this music of genius. Saldana's Simone moves over to the Steinway in her French hideaway and, by verse two, is striking those chords herself. She, too, wants to be like Nina Simone.
The movie plays like some million-dollar version of the tape that woman made and mailed: an amateur tribute that gets the familiar chords down but moves us mostly by reminding us of the original. At the story level, Nina strains to be a study of Simone in the '90s, a star in exile, rarely performing and facing a cancer diagnosis. For all her wounded fury, she's headed for a triumphant comeback, of course, and she sometimes gets caught up in flashbacks to 30 years earlier. In that sense the film resembles Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead, another movie about one of the greatest of American artists that sets itself in a late, fallow period rather than examine the art or its origins.
But Nina's true, accidental subject quickly reveals itself as the irreducibility of Simone herself: Little of her genius and complexity have been squeezed into this film's familiar three-act structure of friendship and redemption.
“She has to deliver truth again,” says David Oyelowo as Simone's late-life nurse and friend. The film itself struggles to hit that mark. The scene-craft is undistinguished TV-movie stuff — a scene about a phone call will open with a closeup of a phone; one about an arrival and departure opens with a closeup on the door. The score often sinks into tinkly piano mush that Simone, trained on Bach, would never abide. (Mort has sued the film's producers, alleging, among other things, that their cuts and changes to her script and film constitute a breach of contract.)
Saldana herself sings, a choice every bit as baffling as when the filmmakers behind I Saw the Light put “Lovesick Blues” in the mouth of an actor who can't yodel. Saldana boasts a strong voice, but not one of Simone's epochal resonance. Simone's can stop you in your tracks, start a revolution, stir and salve despair in your heart. Why deny us its force and pleasure? Nobody expected Cheadle to play his own trumpet in Miles Ahead; isn't simply acting as Nina Simone work enough for an actor?
Saldana, as you may have heard, has been outfitted with facial prosthetics and skin-darkening makeup for the role. This is a distraction: This Nina Simone has no pores. A scene where she wanders her home covering herself with a white bedsheet becomes comically tense: Will her body makeup rub off on it? Whatever you make of the issues of representation involved in the casting and slathering of Saldana, it's undeniable that, especially when blown up to movie-screen size, it often doesn't work, no matter how skillful the performance.
The filmmakers have denied us their subject’s voice and then sunk their lead by adding distancing layers between the audience and her chief instrument, her face. Even the script exhibits little confidence in this Nina's ability to communicate to us what matters. “What happened, Nina?” Oyelowo's nurse has to ask. “Why are you here and not in America? Why do you keep your money in a mattress rather than a bank account?” And he goes on like that, a sort of FAQ of things the film wonders about rather than dramatizes.