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USA 2016
Directed by
Cynthia Mort
90 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Filmed in 2012 but not released until 2016, writer and debut director Cynthia Mort’s Nina Simone biopic was disavowed by the singer’s family and mercilessly savaged by critics. As is so often the case with biopics the principal grounds for the savaging is the film’s failure to be true to the facts rather than any problems with the film as such. 

This disconnect is most obvious in the casting of  Zoe Saldana. The actress has been given a prosthetic nose and her skin has been darkened with thick and very noticeable make-up to make her look more like Simone but whereas Saldana was in her early thirties, the singer at the time of her life which is portrayed was in her sixties. Not only is the result that we never can reconcile the incongruity but it is more than a small affront to the singer who was a passionate activist for black rights and, in general. honesty in human relations. Another ground for abjection was that Mort turns Simone's P.A, and manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), into her toy-boy when in actuality he was gay (apparently the producers took the film away from Mort who initially wanted her name taken off the final outcome but it’s difficult to see how, as screenwriter this fudging was not her responsibility).

Focussing on a dark period in Simone’s life when her career was in the doldrums, her financial situation parlous and she was emotional unstable to the point of forcible hospitalisation (apparently Simone was bi-polar although this is not mentioned) which is how she met Henderson (David Oyelowo) a nurse in a L.A. hospital who according to the narrative withstood her flagrant abuse and was responsible for her triumphant return to the stage.

Even with having only the barest knowledge of Simone’s life and music, Nina feels like a generic show business movie, a templated story of self-destruction and redemption, rather than an insight into a real person.  For yes, if it were a fiction, Nina would more than passable as it is quite stylishly filmed in a glossy retro style reminiscent of Ray with Saldana giving the role all she’s got and her singing voice impressing (Mary J, Bilge was originally cast but withdrew). Still, Nina is being promoted as a biopic and in this respect it is reasonable to expect more than what is passed off as such here..

FYI: I haven’t seen it but apparently Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary on the singer 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' is the film that you should be watching.




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