The controversy over the casting of Zoe Saldana as the late Nina Simone, a woman of color who was both darker-skinned and broader of feature than the Hollywood actress who plays her in “Nina,” has cast a pall over the release of the new film. Saldana’s use of skin-darkening makeup, a prosthetic nose and a kinky wig has been likened to blackface.
Although the practice of using cosmetic adjustments to bring a performer’s appearance more in line with the historical figure they portray is common, in this case it adds a sting to the portrait of a woman who was the victim of racism in her lifetime. As Simone’s daughter, actress Lisa Simone Kelly, observed in the excellent 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” her mother was often told that, “her nose was too big, her lips were too full and her skin was too dark.”
As troubling as the implications of Saldana’s casting might be, the actress’ physical appearance in the film – which only approximates Simone’s – is ultimately not the most egregious deviation from its subject. Saldana, who does her own reasonably competent singing in “Nina,” doesn’t sound very much like Simone.
Saldana has a pleasant voice, but it’s higher, cooler and cleaner than Simone’s, with none of her signature whiskey-soaked vibrato. “Sometimes I sound like gravel,” Simone says in the documentary, “and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”
Saldana’s voice is like a cup of Frappuccino: smooth and sweet and chilly. Simone’s always sounded as if her voice was being pulled from somewhere simultaneously deep within and beyond the singer.
But there’s a bigger letdown in “Nina”: The conventional framing of the story, which focuses on the relationship between Simone and her assistant, and later manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a former nurse who meets his client after she is admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of alcoholism, bipolar disorder and other maladies. These are not the most auspicious terms under which to begin a business relationship, let alone the friendship that it somehow grows into.
Nina’s psychological abuse of Clifton – a gay man whom she insults with an ugly slur when he rebuffs her drunken sexual advance – is the defining dynamic of their dysfunctional relationship. For that reason, it’s a little hard to buy into their connection.
It’s not for either actor’s lack of trying. Saldana and Oyelowo are both listed as executive producers – always a red flag – so “Nina” is clearly a labor of love. But where’s the chemistry? Saldana nicely evokes Nina’s haughtiness, and Oyelowo nails his portrayal of the put-upon gofer. But there’s little else to suggest how these two people came to depend on each other. At least the movie isn’t a love story, as some Simone partisans had feared, based on pre-release descriptions of the plot.
Structurally, “Nina” checks off a laundry list of formative events and character attributes: Nina insisting, as a child, that her parents be seated up front during an early piano recital; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which radicalized her politically; drunken outbursts; and a late diagnosis of cancer, after she has settled in France to escape racism in America.
At one point, Nina makes a phone call to her friend, comedian Richard Pryor (Mike Epps), but this scene, like so many others, feels random. (It’s no surprise: Writer-director Cynthia Mort reportedly has sued the film’s British production company, Ealing Studios, for cutting her out of the editing process.)
In the end, however, it’s Simone who deserves better treatment. “Nina” filters the singer’s voice – and her life – through tinny-sounding speakers and an out-of-focus lens.
Two stars. Unrated. Also available on demand. Contains crude language, alcohol abuse, brief nudity and smoking. 90 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.