It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Like an angry drunk at a dive bar, Zoe Saldana’s makeup job in “Nina” dares you to stare at it and court trouble. The first sign of the filmmakers’ suffocating arrogance is that they think you’ll believe that this walking pile of brown paint and prosthetics is music legend Nina Simone. “Nina” hopes you’ll ignore the controversial racial politics of casting an actress with a far lighter skin tone than her real-life counterpart. Yet you feel as if you’re being trolled by the film, because it puts the completely-coated Saldana in a shower, a swimming pool and against Clorox bleach-bright white sheets that are just itching to become smudged. Genuine suspense is created by the possible exposure of Saldana’s original shade, but like actual Blackness, the color stays on without incident. You’ll see some durable makeup in “Nina." What you won’t see is any justification why this film should exist.
“Nina” is completely clueless about what made Nina Simone great. Her music is butchered by Saldana, who sings the songs herself in an ever-escalating series of terrible numbers. Simone’s dark skin color and distinctly African-American features, proud badges of honor that were often problematic in society, are unrealistically recreated rather than realistically cast. Her career-long activism for her people is reduced to a few throwaway lines; never once do we feel how this struggle affected her. This is a film that not only doesn’t give us “Mississippi Goddam," it can’t even say the full name of the song. The lack of the incendiary “goddam” in dialogue about the song is a symbolic representation of how this film neuters and whitewashes its subject.
“Nina” chronicles an unstable, older Simone, which means that, in addition to colorizing Saldana, she’s also aged several years. No one considered reworking the screenplay to focus on a Nina Simone closer to Saldana’s actual age. This is because the film would have to get its hands dirty—the thirty-something Nina Simone was deeply entrenched within the Civil Rights Movement, singing angry songs and clearly harshing a mellow that the filmmakers do not wish to disturb. Doing so would require a character who was less of a victim than writer/director Cynthia Mort’s script wants to portray. One gets the feeling that Mort wants to play the hero here, saving that "poor Negro singer" she’s a casual fan of rather than letting her have any agency.
So “Nina” becomes a story about the real life Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), the nurse who was, according to this film, Simone’s manager, savior and the catalyst for her “triumphant return to the stage." He’s presented with hot mess Nina Simone, whose extreme drinking and refusal to take her bipolar depression pills have led her to be temporarily institutionalized. Henderson isn’t a fan—he barely knows her music—yet he inexplicably decides to drop everything and fly to France to be her caretaker. There, he is privy to numerous violent and emotional outbursts by Simone, which occur in almost sitcom-like fashion. None of these dramatic scenes are credibly performed by Saldana, who gives the worst performance of her career. At one point, she just stands and stares angrily into the distance, as if awaiting direction from her first-time director. Oyelowo spends the entire movie looking confused, which is perfect because he’s the stand-in for the equally confused audience.