Deep into her earnest, uncertain Nina Simone drama Nina, writer-director Cynthia Mort at last musters up a sequence of gravity and power. The inimitable Miss Simone -- imitated here by Zoe Saldana -- reads a letter from a woman who has recently lost her mother, a great Simone fan.
It's the mid ‘90s, decades after Simone's best work, and this towering performer is drinking hard, off her meds and impossible to book. The letter-writer includes a cassette recording of herself at a piano, striking the stark chords of Simone's 1966 masterpiece "Four Women." The woman sings Simone's blunt declaratives -- "My skin is black," "My hair is wooly." Simone -- or the movie's guess at her — listens, smiles, even sings along a little herself. Like her fans, like the filmmakers, she's awed by that song, by that sound. Saldana's Simone moves over to the Steinway in her French hideaway and, by verse two, is striking those chords herself. She, too, wants to be like Nina Simone.
The movie plays like some million-dollar version of that tape: an amateur tribute that gets the familiar chords down but moves mostly by reminding us of the original. At the story level, Nina strains to be a study of Simone in the '90s, a star in exile, rarely performing and facing a cancer diagnosis. But Nina's true, accidental subject quickly reveals itself as the irreducibility of Simone herself: Little of her genius and complexity have been squeezed into this familiar three-act structure of friendship and redemption. Saldana, as you may have heard, has been outfitted with facial prostheses and skin-darkening makeup for the role. This is a distraction: This Nina Simone has no pores.