Review: Nina Simone (2016)


Nina Simone (2016)

Directed by: Cynthia Mort | 87 minutes | biography, drama, music | Actors: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Kevin Mambo, Ronald Guttman, Chuma Gault, Allison Sarofim, Mike Epps, Keith David, Ella Joyce, Stevens Gaston, Fred Cassidy, Jessica Oyelowo, Anthony Molinari, Ella Thomas

Nina Simone is an artist that everyone has heard of, although it is necessary to think about where they know the singer. However, the high priestess of soul music deserves more. Breaking the exile of political themes in pop music, she was the voice of thousands of African Americans in the 1960s. A time when record executives preferred to release a sweet love song than a harsh critique of society. A time that is ideal for a great film about the life and career of this eccentric artist. Unfortunately, the makers of the film ‘Nina Simone’ thought otherwise.

Choosing to tell a different story, director Cynthia Mort begins the film with the fall of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana), when she threatens an organizer with a gun and ends up in an asylum. Here she meets the caretaker Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), the man who will try to get her back into the limelight. So a comeback story, but without first having seen a decent portion of the rising star. This part of Simone’s success story is told in very short passages. ‘Nina Simone’ therefore starts with two prologues; in which we see a very young Nina playing at her school in 1945 and then in 1965, where she is an accomplished jazz pianist.

The film continues to jump from scratch during the hour and a half running time. The next scene suddenly jumps to 1988, where the majority of the story to be told takes place. A really cohesive whole is not forthcoming, and it doesn’t help that the flashbacks often show a much more interesting time for the artist. For example, we get to see images of Simone at the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King (ironic since Oyelowo still played this role in ‘Selma’ from 2014). Her reaction is fierce and pure and it would have been very interesting to see how that turned out. The character Simone also seems a lot more sympathetic there, because the heap of misery that we are stuck with for most of the film is anything but pleasant to watch.

That can only partly be blamed on the performance that Zoe Saldana gives. However, she does have the misfortune of being painfully miscast. She does her best to be the diva and to imitate the way of speaking, but in the end it mainly remains an imitation. Nowhere does the viewer get the feeling that they are looking at the real Nina Simone. Also in this aspect the flashbacks work better, here Saldana is much better to have as the iconic singer. Especially because the make-up is very minimal, so that little or no distinction is made between the Simone from the early seventies and the Simone from the late eighties.

‘Nina Simone’ is really just a summary of the Nina Simone Wikipedia page. There are many facts mentioned that are often looked back on. These snippets are often the best part of the movie, but they do provide a very sudden break from the main storyline. It makes for a very patchy end product. In the end, fortunately, you can still enjoy the music. Saldana sings it all very well. But it is not enough to save the singer’s rendition.

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