I’m sure she thought it would be one of the greatest challenges of her life and if she could pull it off, she’d be stronger and more talented than she ever thought possible. I believe she dreamed of walking into the Oscars as the underdog and waltzing out triumphantly. Maybe she saw herself making E!’s Best Dressed list the next day, being the talk of the town for her stellar performance and rising stardom. Maybe she even thought she would escape the “Oscar Curse,” which leaves so many Black actresses in obscurity following their win.
Like Zoe, I too had dreams that things would be better than the sum of my own fears. I went into the film well aware of the surrounding controversies, which is why I tried to be as open-minded as possible.
I left, asking myself da fuq?
The film opens with Nina in a psych ward. It is there she meets Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a male nurse whom she enlists to be her assistant. They fly off to France before he quickly realizes the job is nothing more than a glorified bartender.
If only the bad ended there.
Saldana’s effort in Nina is unquestionable. There were scattered times she’d command the screen, like in the scene when she wields a dinner knife while dropping a ferocious “motherfucker.” She tried y’all.
Unfortunately, Saldana’s performance felt like she was searching for depth in shallow waters. She seemed unable to connect with Nina’s demons in a way that disabled her from from delivering a believable depiction. It made me question if the actress had ever gone through pain in her life.
Nina director Cynthia Mort told Buzzfeed, “Certainly, I would not have cast Zoe if I felt she was wrong for the role in a million years. Zoe’s amazing. She’s amazing in the movie” and “She gave her all. She’s honest, she’s courageous, she’s fierce.’
I’m sure Zoe is all of those things. But right for the role, she is not. It’s a fact that is glaring, obvious and inescapable throughout the entirety of the film.
But the issues go beyond her performance. Her makeup and prosthetic nose are distracting and borderline insulting to beauty professionals, who could likely do a better job beating their face in their living rooms on Halloween with drug store makeup and bad lighting. I tried to look past the blotchy foundation and layers of Big Mommas House skin they used to craft Zoë’s slightly larger nose. But it is legitimately impossible to do so.
In most every scene, I cringed, slapped my forehead and found myself asking, Don’t they fucking get it?
Nina was known for her unabashed and brazen Blackness. Her big nostrils, creamy brown skin, nappy hair and from the bottom-of-your-stomach vocals, whose absence left a gaping hole in the misguided film.
Without rights to Nina’s music, Zoe Saldana was left to sing her songs. Don’t get me wrong, Zoë Saldana has a pretty voice. But, she does not have a Nina Simone voice. Long performance shots grew awkward when Saldana’s voice didn’t deliver that stirring feeling you get when Nina’s voice penetrates your soul.
David Oyelowo delivered a solid performance as the pouty, caring man in Nina’s life. But it was boring and did his career no justice.
Mike Epps made a gratuitous cameo as Richard Pryor, which felt more like a forced foreshadowing and blanket attempt to get us hype about his portrayal of Pryor when it eventually hits theaters.
The biopic was doomed from the start. It focuses on Nina’s battle with alcoholism, but overlooks her sexual orientation. Nina’s influence on the Civil Rights movement was addressed, but the scenes felt comical, since we were staring at Saldana in Black face.
I hate to say it, but the film was as painful as a UTI. As torturous as getting a tooth pulled. Perhaps even as bad as sitting through a Donald Trump rally. It was bad, y’all. The disjointed Cynthia Mort film is proof of Hollywood’s blindness to its own White privilege. It was the most watered-down, White-friendly version of Nina I’ve ever seen.