It’s easy to compare artists these days and it stems from a number of things. The influencers are still just as dynamic as the admirers, samples are noticeable than ever in all genres (blame nostalgia) and authenticity isn’t something that thrives in heavy amounts on the Billboard charts. To seek out true talent, one must dive deep into the music scene (or your Soundcloud), bringing a new definition to “discovering music.”
When it comes to Nina Simone, there’s no one that can compare, and this is the reason why the biopic falls flat. While watching the Cynthia Mort-directed film, we’re reminded that the singer is the best to ever do it, with endless news headlines and recreations of her legendary album covers making up the opening credits. Aside from this, the audience learns next to nothing about Ms. Simone, besides her battles with alcoholism, mental illness and a dynamic fashion sense. It also fails to answer the most basic of questions about the singer. Why was her music prolific? Who inspired her? It’s implied that we should know these things, yet uncovers the film’s discrepancies with the singer’s family. If they were involved, we could have seen another side of the singer that was portrayed in the 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone.
The controversial film is also centered around Simone, played by Zoe Saldana, and Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), who is reluctantly taken to Bouc-Bel-Air, France from California after the two meet during her time in a psychiatric hospital. As her nurse, Clifton gains her trust and rises from her assistant to her manager. Zoe’s presence as the singer was publicly broken down due to the use of a prosthetic nose and dark makeup, a visual that is hard to ignore. The look is nail biting, especially in moments where the actress is in the shower or swimming in her pool. Due to movie magic it won’t tarnish, but the thought is distracting.
With an archived interview carrying out the film, we’re taken back to the singer’s childhood, her relationship with the Civil Rights Movement and the love for her daughter as Saldana sings Nina’s “To Be Young, Gifted & Black,” “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” and the opener/closer “Feeling Good.” The moments are short lived, and barely provide the right amount of oxygen into the life that was the singer’s. In the end, a drained Clifton helps Simone bring her black girl magic to the states with a performance at Central Park.
Saldana’s singing voice is quite elegant (no lip syncing), but is just as offbeat as her accent that comes and goes between scenes. The actress gives her all in the film, especially in the moments where she is at odds with Clifton. In the few scenes where we see Nina exist alone, Saldana presents a troubled misunderstood woman, instead of Simone herself. David Oyelowo’s innocent portrayal of Clifton is admirable, but his talent is wasted as producers failed to portray his backstory. A crying Michael Jordan meme or a sad Christopher Darden a la The People vs. O.J Simpson could have easily (but wistfully) replaced him. If the script or Morton was allowed into the editing process, Saldana and the other actors could have had more to work with.
In a twist, the best moment of the film is a phone conversation between Simone and Richard Pryor, played by Mike Epps. As Simone gushes about Clifton’s caring soul, the two look back on how their friendship began in a nightclub where a frightened Pryor performs his stand-up material for the first time. It’s a short moment bound to give you chills as Epps channels the iconic comedian with ease, making you mark your calendar for his upcoming biopic.
If you were hoping to discover more about the enigmatic singer, look no further than her music. “Mississippi Goddam” helps paint the portrait of a trying time in Black History and her recording of “Sinnerman” displays her vulnerable connection to her faith. If the film teaches us anything, we learn the talented ones carry a burden of knowing the truth and will always be misunderstood for it.