Nina Simone's beautiful struggle overshadowed by white gaze

High Priestess of Soul shrinks behind face paint in controversial biopic

Monday April 18, 2016 04:00 am EDT

Nina, the controversial and long-delayed biopic of the iconic musician and pro-black activist Nina Simone, opens with the film's most moving scene. Young piano prodigy Eunice Waymon, as named at birth, is seated before a captive crowd eager to hear her recital. But this is the Deep South — North Carolina in 1946, to be exact — so her parents are not permitted to sit among the all-white audience. While they stand near the recital hall's entryway, 13-year-old Waymon defiantly announces on stage that she will not begin until her mother and father are seated on the front row.

It's a defining moment for a woman whose life and career serve today as a metaphor of triumph and tragedy in the face of America's racial injustice. But the scene also provides a bit of unintended irony. That's because Vivie Eteme, the actress cast as young Nina, is a ringer for the real Simone. She shares the same rich complexion and rounded nose, without any of the dark makeup or prosthetics that made Zoe Saldana's portrayal problematic from the time paparazzi snapped set photos four years ago.

Nina comes at a time when Hollywood's racial dynamic is under a huge microscope. This year's #OscarsSoWhite critique not only highlighted the lack of quality roles for black actors, but also the dearth of films green-lit by Hollywood depicting the breadth of the black experience. Don Cheadle's biopic on jazz legend Miles Davis also hits screens this month. The acclaimed actor directs and stars in the film about one of the 20th century's most iconic musicians. Yet Cheadle, who partly relied on crowdfunding to raise money for the film, had to add a fictional white co-star to the script to secure final financial backing.

Director Cynthia Mort has faced her own uphill battles getting Nina to the big screen, including protracted legal disputes with the production company over creative control and the public distancing of Simone's daughter, Lisa, who never authorized the biopic. Meanwhile, the controversy raging over racism, colorism — and a white filmmaker's choice to address early criticism by blackening up the light-skinned Zoe Saldana using dark makeup — is as old as Hollywood itself. It reached its apex last month when noted black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates took the film's biggest supporter Robert Johnson (whose RLJ Entertainment is distributing the film) to task over "The Appropriation of Nina Simone."

The trailer solidified a growing number who've pledged not to support it at the box office. Were it not for the free advanced press screening, I must admit I might've counted myself among them. But I was also curious to see if the film was as bad as publicized. I wanted to see if a semblance of Simone's beautiful struggle shines through the BS. And it does, but barely. Instead what we get is a tepid interpretation of Simone's radical blackness diffused through the lens of first-time director Mort, whose biggest credits to date include decidedly white sitcoms "Roseanne" and "Will & Grace."

Set in the '90s, as Simone's career and mental and physical health are on a steep decline, the film fleshes out her story through flashbacks interspersed with interview reenactments. After pulling a gun on a label executive in 1995 to demand her money, the aged singer is arrested and placed in a psych ward where she's diagnosed a manic-depressive and paranoid alcoholic. A young man named Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) nurses her to health and eventually gains her trust. Once discharged, she hires him to come to France and serve as her personal assistant. He quickly finds himself in over his head with Simone, who overindulges in wine and is prone to wild outbursts. But when he discovers old press clippings and recordings, he begins to wonder about her fall from grace.

It's hard painting an honest portrait of such a complex character. Mort attempts to flesh out the blemishes in Simone's biography, including well-documented abuse suffered at the hands of her one-time husband/manager and an equally troubled relationship with her daughter. But covering so much chronology through disjointed flashbacks results in a film with little grounding. One moment she's reacting violently to MLK's assassination, the next she's sharing her new song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" with Lorraine Hansberry (Ella Thomas), the friend and playwright who inspired it. Back in the present day, she gets a call from comedian Richard Pryor, which rolls into a flashback to one of his early Greenwich Village performances opening for Simone in 1963.

Clifton's role as caretaker eventually takes a contentious turn. After spurning sexual advances from Simone, Clifton retreats back home to Chicago. But when she unexpectedly shows up at the home of his parents, played excellently by veteran actors Ella Joyce and Keith David, Clifton agrees to return to France as her manager. Thus begins Simone's slow return to glory.

Simone's onstage comeback is juxtaposed with flashback performances of such classic material as "Black is the Color," "See-Line Woman," and "Four Women." The songs are all sung by Saldana, whose vocal performance is a surprising treat but no substitute for Simone's original recordings.

Yet it's Simone's inner struggles that fall flattest on screen. There's no real provocation provided for her spirit of protest. And her mental illness comes across totally unhinged and decontextualized, in the same way the media's portrayal of black militancy was then or Black Lives Matter is now.

Then there's the makeup. Even setting aside the notion that it's comparable to blackface (which really didn't enter my mind once), the makeup job is just plain old bad. In some scenes it seems smooth and even, in others Saldana looks like she has a bad case of eczema or an early onset of vitiligo. "Do they think Nina Simone was ugly," I found myself wondering. The lack of consistency makes Saldana's attempt to disappear into the character impossible as filmgoers are likely to focus on her face more than the soul of the character or the plot's progression.

Instead of suspending disbelief, the poor makeup job makes it hard to believe in Mort's overall vision. How can anyone take Nina seriously when the film gets something so elemental to the story of Simone's career struggles so wrong? If only physical appearance were the sole problem. Unfortunately, it's not. At times Saldana's acting feels like a broad-stroked caricature of Simone. The same can be said for Mike Epps' portrayal of Pryor. Where they lack character motivation, they seem to rely on mimicry. Oyelowo's acting is so superb it almost redeems the film, but even that becomes an aberration by elevating a man who served as her manager and caretaker into her savior.

In the end, Hollywood renders two black women — both Simone and Saldana — less beautiful. But it also succeeds in trivializing the importance of Simone's complexion as a source of racial pride and industry prejudice. Yet there is a sense of poetic justice. Even in death, Simone's life still pokes holes in America's racial hypocrisy.

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