Cynthia Mort's long-time-in-coming biopic about the trials and travails of the great Nina Simone has been harshly criticized going as far back as 2012, when word first got out that the "Young, Gifted, and Black" pianist and soul woman would be portrayed by Zoe Saldana with the aid of dark-brown makeup and a prosthetic nose.

Now that Nina has finally arrived in theaters, revealing itself to be a listless, oddly constructed tale that does a poor job of capturing Simone's star quality or indomitable racial pride, it makes you wonder: Was it really worth kicking up all that controversy for a movie that's this bad?

Nina's flaws are many, and they go far beyond the light-skinned Zaldana's appearance and not-terrible performance.

(When Zaldana was cast, Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer's daughter, who performs as Simone, told the New York Times: "My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearancewise, this is not the best choice.")

The structure and focus of the film is puzzling. Mort, who cowrote the screenplay for the 2007 Jodie Foster thriller The Brave One and makes her directorial debut here, chooses not to emphasize Simone's dramatic rise from humble North Carolina beginnings to international fame as a vocalist and eloquent voice against injustice.

Instead, Nina focuses on the singer's twilight years, well past her prime, when her behavior is erratic. She stabs one overly chatty nightclub patron who disturbs her concentration, and has driven away those closest to her.

All that she has left is Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a nurse she meets while under psychiatric observation in Los Angeles, whom she persuades to become her assistant and, eventually, manager. They move to her Sunset Boulevard-esque château in the south of France.

So authoritative as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Oyelowo is wasted in an underwritten role in which he has little to do but express his exasperation.

And the trouble with Saldana isn't only that the 37-year-old actress doesn't look like Simone, who died in 2003 at 70. It's that the Avatar star really doesn't look like an unhealthy sixty-something woman whose body has been ravaged by booze and cancer.

The movie might have gotten away with using Nina and Clifton's relationship as a framing device to the full story of the illustrious musician. And the fact that it chooses not to feels perverse - especially since Simone has become such a potent inspirational symbol for today's Black Lives Matter movement (in part thanks to Liz Garbus' superb 2015 Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?)

There are flashbacks, but nearly all are randomly selected performance scenes.

And now to say a few nice things: With the original recordings not available for use, Zaldana does her own singing, and she's not half bad. She's no match for the arresting, inimitable Nina Simone, but she doesn't embarrass herself.

And there are a few sweet, comic scenes when Clifton tries to quit her, and the singer chases him back to his family home in Chicago, where his parents are taken aback by the sight of Nina Simone knocking on their front door.

One further, local complaint: An essential part of the Simone origin story is about how the pianist was not accepted by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to continue her classical training, because she was black, she believed.

(That charge is repeated in the movie in a re-created interview for French TV, and though it has been disputed by the school, it's germane to the story, because Simone herself was convinced of it.)

In real life, after she didn't get into Curtis, she lived in West Philadelphia teaching piano, and then, in the summer of 1954, sang for her supper in Atlantic City at the Midtown Bar on Pacific Avenue, where she first used the stage name Nina Simone.

For some reason, Mort's script changes the geography, and has Simone tell her French interviewer that, when she didn't get into Curtis, she had to go to Atlanta - not Atlantic City - to earn money, thus erasing the then-bustling Jersey Shore resort from history. Like Nina Simone, it seems Atlantic City cannot get the respect it deserves.


Directed and written by Cynthia Mort. With Zoe Saldana and Ronald Guttman. Distributed by RLJ Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24, AMC Neshaminy 24, and video on demand.