There’s been so much controversy over the casting in Nina, the biopic about the stormy life of the late jazz singer Nina Simone, that it has eclipsed everything else about the film.
By casting the lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana as the dark-skinned Simone — a performer whose skin tone molded her singular and often confrontational world view — director Cynthia Mort and the producers have faced accusations of perpetuating “blackface” in the 21st century.
They were charged with “colorism” — the preference for lighter shades over darker ones — and the black culture site The Root even published a list of 11 dark-skinned actresses who would have been better choices. Viola Davis, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Lauryn Hill all got the nod of approval, though whether all of them had that rare combination of acting and singing talent was not addressed.
That’s a shame because Nina, despite its most obvious flaw, has several things in its favor. Saldana is actually quite good at summoning the soul of Simone’s prickly persona. While her vocals lack Simone’s smoky intensity, she nevertheless turns in a respectable job as an interpreter of some of Simone’s most recognized songs.
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She is matched by David Oyelowo (MLK in Selma), as her nurse/caretaker/manager Clifton Henderson. He turns in another strong yet subtle performance.
Mort, who also wrote the screenplay, comes out of TV (Roseanne, Will & Grace, the telemovie Tilda) but directs her first feature with a steady hand.
While it doesn’t have the adventurous stylishness of Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, it’s an involving if straight-ahead version of Simone’s life. It might not be as essential as the recent Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, but it shouldn’t be dismissed either.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Saldana’s make-up isn’t convincing. It’s a constant distraction, no matter how expert the music or solid the acting. It does, indeed, look like blackface.
While having Saldana play the part with her natural coloring wouldn’t have been true to the facts, it would have been a far easier sin to forgive.
R&B singer Mary J. Blige was the original choice for the role but bowed out, and if Blige’s performance had been as good as Saldana’s, the movie probably would be released with more fanfare than it’s getting. There might even be Oscar buzz.
As it stands now, Nina seems to be getting the theatrical bum’s rush. In North Texas, it isn’t even being released in either Dallas or Fort Worth proper but in Arlington, Frisco and Mesquite instead.
Long after Nina has left theaters, the only thing most people will remember about it is how it was the Rachel Dolezal of movies, a sterling example of Hollywood’s ongoing blind spot when it comes to matters of race.
Simone might even have found the whole thing emblematic of the issues she faced when alive. But she, and Saldana, deserve better.
Exclusive: AMC The Parks at Arlington; AMC Stonebriar, Frisco; AMC Mesquite 30
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Cynthia Mort
Cast: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo
Rated: Unrated (strong language, sexual situations)
Running time: 90 min.