The uproar over actress Zoe Saldana being cast to portray iconic African-American vocalist and civil rights activist Nina Simone in a major motion picture about a portion of her life has been overwhelming since news of the casting broke a few years ago.
Despite this fact, I attended a private screening of Nina yesterday with an open mind, hoping to be pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
I entered the packed screening room to a small, mixed crowd of fellow media and took my seat. The scene displayed on the screen at that moment featured a stale-faced Zoe Saldana (as Nina) and an anxious but apprehensive David Oyelowo (as Nina’s nurse-turned-assistant-turned-manager Clifton) walking through the airport after he’d agreed to become her assistant following an encounter with her at the psychiatric hospital where she’d been admitted and he was employed. As expected, the make up applied to Zoe’s face, neck and hands in a failed attempt to darken her golden brown skin tone to “match” that of Nina’s was immediately the first thing I noticed. Equally as disappointing was the afro wig worn by Zoe in the scene (and throughout the film). To my surprise, going into the screening with an open mind and trying to will myself to focus more on the storyline and the actors’ performances than the costume shortcomings did nothing to ease how taken aback I was by the disappointing physical transformation of Zoe into Nina. Nevertheless there was still roughly 70 minutes of the movie left, so I again attempted to keep any pre-conceived bias at bay to consider the possibility that a brilliant story line, undeniably charismatic dynamic between the characters or perhaps even the depth of the music attached to the film would overshadow the things that I disliked.
Zoe’s ability as an actress to commit to the character without reservation and give 100% to make her performance as authentic as possible was evident early on in the film, however, it was only in the handful of scenes showcasing Nina’s often volatile disposition that her portrayal approached believable. One of the first scenes to give viewers a glimpse at this takes place in Nina’s home in France, where she lashes out at Clifton for attempting to refuse to give her alcohol and suggesting she eat something. Another shocking scene occurs when Nina abruptly stops her performance to launch into an inattentive lounge audience and slice a man with a knife. A third memorable scene saw Nina verbally annihilate Clifton for complimenting her musical style as being like one he’d never encountered and describing her as “different,” much to her disapproval and his surprise. But like many scenes in the film that would have likely registered more authentic without the distracting physical appearance of Zoe as Nina, hearing Zoe repeatedly proclaim “I am a Black woman,” to Clifton in this scene while donning blackface, a prosthetic nose and a fake afro wig fell short of being convincing. The rest of the film went on to quickly run through notable moments in Nina’s career while shedding a dim light on her ability to remain resilient as an artist amidst her constant struggle with mental illness and her battle with breast cancer.
While Zoe’s renditions of Nina’s songs weren’t bad, anyone even vaguely familiar with Nina’s original recordings will find that so many of the classics in the film lacked the depth, power, pain and raw honesty that Nina’s singing voice was known for and Zoe’s just simply doesn’t possess. Ironically, this particular shortcoming may have gone virtually unnoticed had it not been one of too many.
Among the few highlights in the film were David Oyewelo’s performance as Nina’s timid yet genuine and ultimately essential assistant-turned-manager Clifton, who struggled constantly with balancing his love for Nina as a performer and having to deal with her erratic off-stage persona. A second highlight was Mike Epps‘ brief appearance as Richard Pryor. A third standout scene in the film was Nina’s reaction to the news of Dr. King’s assassination, which resulted in her recording of “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)” in his honor. It was one of very few moments in the film that seemed to capture at least a glimpse of the reasons why the scope of Nina’s influence on music as a culture was..and still is…so prevalent.
As the film came to a close and the ending credits began to roll, I left the theater room with one all-consuming thought: There are some stories that simply aren’t Hollywood’s to tell…..and this was one of them.
In the end, the overtly obvious attempts to tweak the most vital components of this story beyond necessity in an effort to make a movie that was more “appealing” to larger audiences rather than devoting more of the focus towards telling this portion of Nina’s story in the most organic way possible may indeed be it’s biggest downfall. Zoe’s drastically altered appearance proved much too distracting to be able to fully digest her performance fairly, open mind and all. Some have expressed that keeping the topic of why a dark-skinned Black actress wasn’t cast to portray Nina at the center of the conversation seems redundant and taboo. What those who feel race “shouldn’t matter” fail to understand is that in this case, if it’s not done right, it’s the only thing that does matter.
The reality is, without at least minimal guidance from Nina’s family and an actress who could embody her essence naturally in as many ways as possible, this story just doesn’t get told by Hollywood in a way that would do her legacy and impact the proper justice.