Nina

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
Nina Movie Poster Image
Sometimes-edgy biopic of iconic musician doesn't dig deep.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 90 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

A new beginning is there for those who want to claim it; also, greatness isn't diminished by human frailty. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nina, though greatly impacted by addiction and a deep melancholy, yearns for self-expression. Clifton cares for Nina and wants to celebrate her.

Violence

Nina points a gun at a man; later, she attacks a police officer and, in a separate incident involving a knife, an audience member. She screams and cusses people out. Discussion about how she has been hit by the men in her life. 

Sex

Kissing and blatant propositioning. A woman is seen lounging with someone else in bed; when she stands up, her bare backside is briefly seen. 

Language

Frequent strong language includes everything from "f--k" (and variations thereof) to "damn" and "a--hole."

Consumerism

Products/brands include Air France, Steinway.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Simone is portrayed as an addict who drank constantly. She almost needed medication to stabilize her mental illness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Nina is a biographical movie about the life of monumental singer-songwriter-musician Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana). It explores her life when she was at her lowest depths -- often drunk, combative, and unable to connect except through music. This makes for a sometimes-intense biopic that includes plenty of lows juxtaposed against highs, including loud fights with both verbal and physical attacks. There's also strong language ("f--k" and more), many scenes of drunkenness, kissing, a woman's bare backside, and incidents involving guns and knives. The movie has drawn some controversy due to the fact that Saldana used prosthetics and skin-darkening make-up to look more like Simone.

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What's the story?

NINA starts with legendary musician Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) near ruin -- she's broke, drunk, and unbookable, sitting in a chemically induced stupor at the piano one moment, screaming at the audience the next. After being sent to a mental institution for pulling a gun on a man she thinks swindled her and attacking a cop at the hospital, she befriends a nurse named Clifton (David Oyelowo), whom she recruits as her assistant. They jet off to the south of France, where Nina is often alone, even among those who adore her, struggling to figure out a way back to herself, whatever that means. A classically trained pianist whose career dreams were foiled early by racism and who later turned to singing and songwriting to express herself, Nina's worst enemy may be herself.

Is it any good?

Biopics have the imposing task of portraying the truth of a life while making sure the audience is fully immersed in the experience; this one has some high points but fails in this mission. Though Zaldana puts in an heroic effort at bringing the late, great, complicated Simone to life, the emphasis is on the "effort." NINA feels labored and self-conscious, as well as superficial. We see Nina the combative, Nina the lush, Nina the difficult, and, yes, Nina the great musician and singer and songwriter --- but these personas aren't connected by a distinct arc that would have made for a textured, multi-dimensional whole. And while Oyelowo is clearly talented, his Clifton is all Cliff's Notes -- no nuance.

And a word about the blackface controversy, which erupted when early footage of the movie was released and Saldana was shown wearing makeup and a prosthetic to look more like Simone: It's not only tone-deaf, it's distracting, doing harm to a movie already beleaguered by other issues. All of that said, there's no mistaking the power of the music, and it's here, albeit perhaps not as compelling with Saldana singing. Nina Simone was a wonder who can't be matched.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about who Nina Simone was. What role did she play in the civil rights movement? Does the film make her place in history clear? Do her flaws and frailty make her any less of an icon?

  • How is drinking portrayed in Nina? Is it glamorized? Are the consequences realistic? Why is that important?

  • Saldana's used of prosthetics and make-up has prompted some to call the performance "blackface," insulting Simone's stance against racial inequality. What do you think of the controversy? What challenges do filmmakers take on with biopics?

  • How does the film address Simone's reported mental illness? Do you think it's accurate? Why might filmmakers choose to alter facts in movies based on true stories?

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