Nina (2016): a shameful return of blackface in Nina Simone’s “biopic”

Nina, a biopic about the legendary Nina Simone, has been in the making for more than 11 years and I do not remember a film that would receive such a relentless backlash even before its actual release. From the moment Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina back in 2012, people, including Nina’s own daughter, took their disbelief and anger to Twitter and expressed their disagreement; and rightly so. It is preposterous that an actress who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage was chosen to portray one of the most important jazz singers and civil rights activists of the 20th century – but where this film really went full-on racist was when they decided to put Saldana in blackface. It is no secret that Hollywood has a long and problematic history with racism, with appearances of blackface going back as far as D.W.Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation (quite possibly the most racist piece of cinema ever to exist) and first feature-length sound film The Jazz Singer from 1927. Even when used for satirical purpose, like in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, having a blackface character is a thin rope to walk on; but when we have a film that takes itself seriously (and how would it not, it is a biopic after all) there is absolutely no excuse for going down that road.

ad_198623880There is no doubt that this film goes against everything the real Nina Simone was fighting for: equality and equal opportunities for people of colour. She was black, she had an afro, she had a round figure, and she was proud of it. But she was also raised in a pre-Civil Rights North Carolina and was therefore continually told that her nose was too wide, her skin too dark – and what this film makes perfectly clear is that not much has changed since then, for there is plenty of actresses who would be a better fit for portraying Nina (Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba or Lupita Nyong’o, to name just a few) but I doubt were even considered for the role since they are not seen as conventionally beautiful by Western beauty standards. They went with a lighter-skinned actress instead, whose facial features seem to be somewhat closer to what Western society considers “appealing” – only to later put her in an afro wig, made her a prosthetic nose, fake teeth and put her in a heavy make-up that darkened her skin.

There is no denying that Nina Simone’s look was considered unconventional and undesirable when she entered into the world of show-business back in the 50’s – but after her lifelong struggle of fighting against marginalization and prejudices that she experienced due to her dark skin colour, she would still have a difficult time being cast today (even for a film about herself). In one of the interviews the director tried to justify the horrific blackface fiasco by saying that they were not, in fact, in search of someone who would look exactly like Nina, but had rather focused on what spirit she possessed as a person. They apparently found this fierceness, passion and anger in Zoe Saldana, but completely ignored the fact that Nina possessed all that passion and anger exactly because she was black. Her race defined her in every possible way; her whole identity was that of a proud black woman who was once denied to pursue a career as a classical pianist due to her race. Not to even mention her music that, if you take the time to really listen to the lyrics, mostly speaks about her experiences as a black woman, racial inequalities and possibilities of a better future that she envisioned and firmly believed in until Martin Luther King’s assassination. And if her appearance really would not be as important as the director claims, why even put Saldana in all that heavy make-up and prosthetic nose?

Much of the anger that went side to side with film’s release was directed at Saldana directly, and while I believe she should have turned the role down, her receiving most of the backlash does not seem fair. The fact that she was even offered the role is, after all, far more problematic and it is a clear evidence of a still very persistent racism that lies at the core of Hollywood studio system. Of course it did not hurt that, as one of the rare successful none-white Hollywood actresses, Saldana already had roles in Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar and Star Trek under her belt, which gave her a certain amount of “star quality” that other black actresses did not have at the time. Hollywood always was, and certainly still is, all about politics and, while I would really want to believe that the director had her best intentions when she started to develop this project, her trying to convince us that the problematic casting was simply an artistic decision and not a very calculated political choice (that, for once, terribly backfired), is just ridiculous and offensive to our intelligence.

However, Nina‘s problems are far deeper than just the wrong choice of a lead actress. The editing is messy (largely due to an excruciating post-production process that resulted in a complete fallout of the director and producers), but it is the screenplay that I found really disappointing. After beginning in 1946, when young Nina Simone, a child prodigy, is performing in her hometown of North Carolina, the film suddenly jumps to the late 80’s, years after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and to a time when her days of fame were already long gone. After being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a 24-hours surveillance, she convinces a young male nurse Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) to move with her to France since she, already a heavy alcoholic and a manic depressive at the time, needs someone to look after her. As soon as they move, the film (supposedly a biopic about Nina) seems to partially change its point of view, for it starts to look like film about Clifton – her nurse-turned-manager who stuck with her after everyone else had already given up and who got her to once again return to America (where she has sworn to never perform again) to play in Central Park, reliving her past glory in front of her old fans. Most of the story, however, is focused on their domestic disputes, where they continually argue over what she eats, how much she drinks and how much medication she takes. He is a good-intentioned care-taker, and she is the crazy, unstable black lady who is throwing bottles of champagne around the house and cannot accept that she is not the diva she used to be anymore. It is like watching All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard, but in quite poorer acting, directing and screenplay quality. There is hardly any flashbacks to what she once was: a revolutionary, civil rights activist, someone who stood alongside Martin Luther King and performed at the end of his march from Selma to Montgomery. Someone who dedicated the majority of her career to fighting racial inequality and spreading awareness of what it means and feels to be black. She was one of the most inspirational people of the era – and yet this film completely ignores the most important 20 years of her life, focusing on the last decade before her death instead; on years that were heavily influenced by her illness, alcoholism and diagnosis of breast cancer that led to her death at the age of 70. Which essentially means the majority of this film portrays Nina in her early sixties, while Saldana was only 32 when they began filming. But then again, ageism, just like racism and sexism, is yet another problem that Hollywood cannot seem to get rid of.

To be left completely unmoved and indifferent after watching a biographical drama about such an astonishing, inspiring and important musical figure is a crime and just that should be a reason enough for me to say that this movie should have never been made. Nina Simone, although graduating from classical piano at Julliard, had her dreams crushed by the harsh reality of then still segregated and deeply racist United States. In order to survive after she moved away from home, she started singing in a nightclub, only to unexpectedly becoming a hit, landing a record deal and turning into a name that can easily be mentioned alongside legends such as Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. But she never forgot her initial dreams, she never forgot that she loved playing Bach and Chopin long before she started playing jazz, blues and gospel and she dedicated her life fighting for injustice in hope that future generations of black girls could play piano in whichever concert hall they would want to. This is who Nina Simone really was; alcoholic, manic depressive diva was just one aspect of it. But it was the only aspect this film chose to portray.

The Basics:
Directed by: Cynthia Mort
Written by: Cynthia Mort
Starring: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Ella Thomas, Mike Epps
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 1