The very black and unapologetic superstar known, as Nina Simone has not always been given her fair end of the stick. Breaking out as a star in the 1960s, 70s and beyond is no easy feat especially for a black woman that refuses to mold into society’s standard of beauty. Even with all the broken glass ceilings many do not know her life and the amazing success and fame she built for herself.
I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the movie Nina at the School of Visual Arts hosted by African American Women In Cinema (AAWIC). Many acknowledge the movie from the controversy over Zoe Saldana performing in “black face” as Nina Simone. Personally I was quite skeptical about why they decided to color Saldana to make her look more like Simone but that is exactly why I could not miss an opportunity to witness either greatness or mediocrity.
The opening scene set in North Carolina during the 1940s set the tone for the strength of the movie. A young Simone with two braids pulled back into pigtails and a schoolgirl dress walked on stage towards a grand piano in an auditorium full of white faces. You see her finely dressed parents standing to the back of the auditorium by the door. Simone sits down ready to perform and slowly pauses, sitting still for a while an older white woman approaches Simone. She thoughtfully but boldly tells the white woman she will not perform unless her parents can sit in the front row. The woman tells her they cannot, as if her request was forbidden, and Simone simply repeats herself refusing to play until they are seated. The woman reluctantly walks away waiving Simone’s parents over towards the empty seats on the side of the room. Of course a couple of white people felt disrespected and left while the majority stayed to hear the prodigy pianist, Nina Simone. Her strength as a young child was just a little piece of the tenacity and power shown throughout the film and her life.
Surprisingly the film only depicted the last ten years of Simone’s life, showing her struggle with alcoholism, mental illness, and her fight to get back to singing and her home country, America. The film was pleasantly surprising showing aspects of Simone’s life that many have not seen. The relationship she had with her young assistant, Clifton, who eventually became her manager and helped Simone stopped drinking, rebuilding her reputation and career. The film also showed Simone’s internal issues with men, love, family, mental illness, and touched on the anger she had towards a country she believed failed her and its people.
“Being an outspoken black women I feared for my life. It’s only natural I want acceptance from my own country, but I was tired of needing it,” stated Simone on why she left America.
The film had many layers I did not expect to see which was refreshing. I can definitely say that Zoe Saldana’s depiction of Simone was beautiful. She totally gave her all for this role, embodying Simone and tried to honor her the best way Saldana could. Something that surprised me the most was finding out that Saldana sang all the music in the movie and she sounded great! Unfortunately, with all good must come a little bad. Now the time has come to talk about the critics concerns, the makeup!
While watching the film I really had to put aside all the negativity I heard beforehand about Saldana’s “black face” and really focus on the story itself. Now being truthful the make up was distracting in some scenes where she was darker than previous shots. Other times I was not sure about her age or what decade the scene was in because there were flashbacks in the film, but no significant change in her appearance. Although the make up was distracting at times it did not take from Saldana’s amazing performance. One thing that was greatly missing for me was more of Simone’s backstory. For many millennials they may not know Simone’s legacy and grandeur and that was not shown well in my opinion as to why and how she became the NINA SIMONE! Honestly, that may have been too much of a backstory to put in this movie considering the fullness of her life.
Regardless of the backlash about this film it should definitely be seen. Nina embodies the boldness and strength of Simone along with the roller coaster of emotions she dealt with while being a successful black female star in a white world. Lastly, Nina made me thankful for Simone’s greatness and inspired me to want to be more like Simone and learn more about her life and share it with those around me. NINA is definitely Reel Approved! To actually watch the movie visit the Urban Movie Channel.
Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, #WhatsTheReel