Nina hits US cinemas on Friday (April 22).

Controversial Nina Simone biopic Nina has been savaged by critics following preview screenings in the States.

The film was heavily criticised due to the casting of lead actress Zoe Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, with many feeling Saldana was too petite and light-skinned to play the iconic singer. 

Last month, the release of the first trailer prompted the estate of Nina Simone to tweet: “Please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life” at Saldana after the actress responded to criticism with a quote from Simone.

Producer Robert L. Johnson stepped in with a statement defending the film and Saldana, saying: “Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance.”

However, that statement has done nothing to save Nina from critical desecration: “The casting of Zoe Saldana is scarcely the only problematic element of Cynthia Mort’s misconceived Nina Simone biopic,” wrote Variety on Monday. “Miscast and misbegotten, this catastrophic biopic plays like a sketch-comedy version of a bad movie about a legendary performer,” said The Wrap, while The Hollywood Reporter declared: “Too small a film for such a towering subject.”

The Root say the film is as “horrible as you thought it could be”, complaining that Saldana’s attempts at singing Simone’s songs further hold the film back: “The acting is questionable, but at least viewers could have enjoyed the music. But nope! Saldana can hold an all right note, but not a candle to Simone.” According to Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, “Nina is a by-the-numbers musical biopic riddled with every conceivable cliché about the tortured artist” that bizarrely glosses over her years as a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement in a five-minute montage. Maybe most damning is Indie Wire’s verdict, who claim the film “isn’t just racially insensitive, it’s also ineptly told.”

Yesterday, Simone’s long-time music director, friend and band leader Al Schackman defended Saldana’s “sensitive” acting and singing in an interview with Billboard. Calling the biopic a “fair composite,” Schackman also praised Saldana’s portrayal “studied and sensitive,” but will these views be echoed among the general public when the film opens in two days?

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