Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was a tour de force. She was a classically trained pianist who studied at Julliard. She applied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was rejected despite an excellent audition because of the colour of her skin. Never intending to sing, she was forced to in order to make a living being a musician of the non-classical variety, the only option open to a woman of colour. She played a blend of jazz and blues, folk and gospel, and probably more besides. She changed her name to avoid embarrassing her family now that she played “the devil’s music.” And she became an activist, an outspoken proponent of the Civil Rights movement. Her music had always spoken to her roots, but soon she incorporated political themes there as well. A beautifully angry song “Mississippi Goddam” written in response to the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama (that killed 4 little girls) particularly comes to mind, because how could it not? It’s spectacular and heart breaking. There was a great documentary made about her life not too long ago, but Nina is not a documentary, which means someone had to step into her shoes.
Mary J Blige was originally cast but had to drop out. Nina herself had hoped that it would be Whoopi who’d portray her on screen. Instead director Cynthia Mort went with Zoe Saldana, and thus created a furor. With Dominican and Cuban ancestry, Saldana identifies as a black woman, but critics felt she was not black enough. Not black enough? The notion makes me queasy. But when Saldana said she was honoured to play Simone, the Nina Simone Foundation nastily replied “Dear Zoe, please keep Nina’s name out of your mouth for the rest of your life.”
Saldana’s talent is bigger than the criticism. She has a great voice, which you may have heard in The Book of Life, but no, she doesn’t sound like Simone. No one does. But she brings a lot of strength and dignity to the role, a mean feat considering the film focuses on the latter years of Simone’s life, which were turbulent to say the least. Mentally and financially unstable, Simone was committed to a psych ward, where she met a nurse she would later make her assistant, and then her manager. David Oyelowo plays the nurse. Biopics generally benefit from a narrow focus, but this one is perhaps unfair to her memory since Simone was so much more than just her struggles. See the documentary for a clearer picture of her life, but to see Saldana shine, this is one good role among many.
Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed granted Simone an honorary degree.
Great review. Wow, whether the film is any good or not perhaps there was a more tolerant way of criticizing the casting of Zoe Saldana. I think what upset people (according to reports) was that she used make-up and a prosthetic to look more like Nina Simone. I personally also found it deeply offensive when Saldana painted herself green in Guardians of the Galaxy. It was savagely racist to all aliens from outer space.
Jokes aside, could there have been a less antagonistic way of debating the matter and casting. Still, it’s all publicity for the film, I guess.
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Got so much from this
Cool review Jay as always.
I really like Simone’s music. I appreciate the info in this review. Thank you!
I’d love to see the documentary and this film because of the music and her life. It just shows how much prejudice there is on both sides. I feel bad for Zoe Saldana who probably felt she couldn’t win especially when she reached out to the foundation. Whoever works at that foundation to say such things needs to smarten up because they are just as bad as the white bigots out there.
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Who knew the Nina Simone Foundation were such a bunch of shitbricks. What an awful bunch. As for all the hoo ha about the make-up and prosthetics, that’s part of the movie game, eh? Depp in yon Black Mass and I didn’t hear folk complaining about Steve Carell in Foxcatcher… in fact, wasn’t there “he deserves an Oscar” shenanigans?
But then, none of those movies were about Nina Simone. Also, that documentary was brilliant… although I came away from it thinking that she was who she was because of her troubles.
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I read this great movie review with excitement! I like Nina Simone’s music but I did not know about this movie. Thanks for movie recommendation!
Sounds like something I’d want to see.
Haven’t seen this one, yet. I will get to it just for the curiosity after that fabulous documentary and the uproar over the casting. Honestly, I understand that uproar. It felt to many like a role that should rightfully have gone to darker skinned actress was handed to a woman who, while black, fits much more neatly into the mainstream conventions of beauty in the name of attracting a wider audience. The fact she was “blackened up” to pull it off didn’t help. It’s been historically difficult for dark skinned actresses to get cast as the lead in the vast majority of films, so to not be able to get the eponymous role in a movie about a dark-skinned woman is frustrating. That said, I’m highly disappointed in the response from the Nina Simone Foundation. This isn’t Saldana’s fault, and she shouldn’t be treated as if it were.
As for the film itself, Simone is more deserving of something that doesn’t just focus on her issues. Again, I haven’t seen it, but when I do, I hope to get more out of than that.
This sounds like a fascinating story, but I’m not sure whether to put this movie on my list. Maybe I’ll see the documentary instead. 🙂