Nina Trailer: Is This Another Shot At An Oscar for Nina Simone’s Life Story?

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2016

The Academy went with another music documentary for the Oscar last weekend, but Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? would have also been a great choice. The film is a very full and fascinating biographical portrait of the singer Nina Simone, the sort that’s held up high as a reason no dramatized biopic is any longer necessary. And it should be noted that the same was true of Garbus’s Bobby Fischer Against the World, and just look at how its unofficial narrative remake, Pawn Sacrifice, turned out. You forgot about it even existing, right?

Now we’re getting the unofficial rehash of Miss Simone with Nina, a biopic starring Zoe Saldana in the title role. This is the one notoriously dragged through the mud by Simone’s daughter, who’d instead endorsed Garbus’s doc. Saldana’s casting was one of the biggest criticisms (partly based on her skin tone), and issue has been taken with the focus of the film being on an alleged later-years romantic relationship between the singer and her nurse/assistant/manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), which the daughter claims most definitely did not happen.

That sounds fine to me, but then I don’t tend to have a problem with untruthful biopics. And it looks fine to me, as well. It’s doubtful that Saldana will be much of an Oscar contender with her performance, for a variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily tied to the performance itself (release date and model, protests over the use of skin-darkening makeup, Saldana’s level of acclaim in her career so far, a first-time director, etc.), but based on the trailer alone, the Guardians of the Galaxy star appears to do a good enough job in her portrayal of Simone. And I can’t say I expect Oyelowo to be anything less than excellent, as usual.

That newbie director, Cynthia Mort, might be one factor in why Nina has been delayed so long and is now finally being dropped simultaneously in theaters and on VOD far away from awards season. The former sitcom writer, who also scripted the Jodie Foster film The Brave One as well as this biopic, is a first timer at the helm and that makes her an easy scapegoat in the event that the movie doesn’t do well. But its protests over Saldana’s “blackface” appearance in the lead could also be causing distributor RLJ Entertainment (Bone Tomahawk) to want to get it out and over with early in the year.

Debuting the trailer on the Today show this morning, however, as well as premiering a poster at Entertainment Weekly, isn’t any kind of sign that this movie is being “dumped.” There’s got to be hope at RLJ that enough people won’t have a problem with an an African-American actress wearing skin-darkening makeup to play an African-American music legend. Personally, I just tend to prefer an actor not changing his or her appearance to better impersonate a famous person in a biopic (it worked for Michael Fassbender in Jobs), regardless of whether that change includes inappropriate measures. But most people want lookalike casting. We’ll get to see for sure if Saldana’s performance, if not her looks, is proof enough that she deserved the role as Simone when it arrives on April 22nd.

For now, watch the trailer and check out the new poster below. And watch the doc option streaming on Netflix.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.