Troubled, controversial and self-destructive, Nina (2016) hits all the wrong notes.

Nina Review

By 1988, Nina Simone’s once glittering career is crumbling under the combined effects of financial troubles and her increasingly erratic mental health and alcoholism. After threatening a lawyer at gunpoint, she finds herself committed to a psychiatric hospital for twenty-four hours where she meets and befriends orderly Clifton Henderson, whom she hires as an assistant upon her discharge. Her behaviour continues to deteriorate and her drinking and refusal to take her medication eventually drives a wedge between her and Clifton just as she receives some devastating news.

Zoe Saldana is acting her heart out but she’s lumbered with a none-too-subtle blackface to darken her skin in an attempt to address some of the pre-production criticism of losing Simone’s self-professed ‘essential blackness’ and, while she has a good singing voice, ‘good’ isn’t even in the same ballpark as Nina Simone.

Likewise, the script flits restlessly around the events of her later life, occasionally lapsing into poorly articulated flashbacks which ultimately confuse the narrative but also acts as something of a distraction from the complete lack of substance that plagues the entire movie. Add to that the liberties taken with other characters, including the erasure of long-term assistant Clifton Henderson’s homosexuality, and you wonder what the point of this biopic was in the first place.

We may never know, of course, because director Cynthia Mort was locked out of the editing suite by the producers, violating her contract and prompting a nasty lawsuit which was probably a fitting end for a motion picture which the Simone Estate not only refused to endorse but actively and vocally protested about.

The end result is a sub-90-minute scratch at the surface of a challenging, compelling and complex artist and civil rights campaigner who deserves something far, far better and substantive than this troubled, controversial and wrongheaded attempted biography which falls appallingly flat despite the best efforts of Saldana and David Oyelowo.

Score 4