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Films We Expected To Debut In 2013 But Didn't: Where/When Might Cynthia Mort's Nina Simone Biopic Premiere?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 17, 2013 at 11:24AM

Films We Expected To Debut In 2013 But Didn't: Where/When Might Cynthia Mort's Nina Simone Biopic Premiere?
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Zoe Nina

Over the next 2 weeks, as the year 2013 comes to a close, I'll be looking back on the year, highlighting those feature films that we fully expected would debut some time over the last 12 months, but, for one reason or another, did not. 

And where available, I'll provide updates on each film, going into 2014.

Without further ado, the first film on my list, and maybe the most-discussed (although, since the controversy its casting drew last year, it appears to have been mostly forgotten), is Cynthia Mort's Nina Simone biopic, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, and David Oyelowo.

What's the film's status, and when/where might it debut?

Our last update on the film was in June of this year, when it looked like the producers of had begun marketing efforts for the film, suggesting that we might be getting our first look at it soon, and a release date would be set.

In an interview with The Grio that month (maybe the first interview they'd given since late 2012), director Cynthia Mort and executive producer Gene Kirkwood had plenty to discuss.

The most interesting item to me in the entire piece was the revelation by Kirkwood that he was chasing Dr Dre to compose the film's score, which was a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Although, as I noted then, Dre does have skills as a music producer, even though he just wouldn't have been the first name I would've thought of to score a film about Nina Simone's life.

“If we can get Dr. Dre involved, it could be very modern arrangements” that make up the score for Nina, Kirkwood said. “He’s going to see a rough cut in about a week and a half. I would love for him to do what Quincy did with In the Heat of the Night and [what] Quincy did with In Cold Blood. Quincy did a lot of scoring. I would love if Dre’s next step would be to score it. That would be a great challenge.”

This news made me even more curious to know what the filmmakers are aiming for with the film, in terms of style and structure.

Other interesting revelations...

Regarding director Mort's focus in the film, she wasn't interested in a conventional biopic that tackled Nina's entire life. Mort's aim all along has been to focus on Nina's love life specifically.

“I like a lot of things that [the film] says about being an artist, about being a woman, about that brilliance, about love,” Mort mused. “It’s clearly not a biopic as much as I think Nina Simone is amazing… I liked her life. I liked what she stood for. I liked that she’s uncompromising… I was taking on something else that I felt was universal to everybody. That doesn’t take anything away from who she is or who she was.

Although the piece does add:

There will be a focus on Simone’s mental and emotional struggles. “Nina was bipolar,” Kirkwood continued. “She was kind of out there, and it’s about this relationship with this male nurse she picked up at Cedars, and he didn’t know what he was getting into.”

The male nurse referenced is of course Clifton Henderson (the character David Oyelowo plays in the film). You'll recall Nina Simone's daughter's rejection of the film, and specifically the love story between Simone and Henderson that it will tell, saying that Henderson was gay, and thus, Nina and Clifton never had a relationship other than a business one, even though the film project implies otherwise.

About why Zoe Saldana was "the right choice" for the part, here's what the piece states:

Mort understands why the color issue is vital, but does not see herself as the spokesperson for that angle of Nina’a story. “So, I don’t want to minimize at all the places Nina holds for many women – women of color, all women, all people, all minorities. But you go with whom you think can best do the performance the role requires.”

When asked what he'd like audiences who see the film to take away from it, exec producer Kirkwood replied:

“I want them to come out wrecked in a good way... That’s how I always saw it, that was my drive. From now on when you hear Nina’s music, you’ll really listen to it.”

And finally, Kirkwood actually welcomes all the controversy that the project has long been at the center of. As he suggests, any publicity is good publicity:

“Every knock is a boost for me [...] People don’t like anything. If Jesus Christ walked in here right now, they’d say, ‘Great carpenter, but terrible guy.’ They’ll find something about everything. There’s nothing positive until they see it [...] Diana Ross was as close to Billie Holiday as you can get, but when [Lady Sings the Blues] came out, they were worried about that[.] With Rocky they said, ‘Who wants to see a fight movie?’ You had to get them in there. There was only one fight in the whole movie. The picture is eventually going to have to make its own track no matter what. But I think every knock is a boost, as long as they’re talking about it.”

So, with all of that, when and where can we expect the film to make its debut?

I fully expected it to premiere sometime this year, as a selection in one of the second half film festivals - especially those taking place in the fall, like TIFF. But it didn't happen. When TIFF announced its lineup, and Nina wasn't mentioned, I adjusted my expectations to predict a Sundance 2014 premiere. But, that festival has unveiled its lineup, and there is no Nina Simone film in it; unless of course, an announcement is made later on, stating that the film will screen there. Last minute additions - especially for higher profile projects - aren't uncommon. 

If not Sundance, which looks to be unlikely at this point, the next best thing in early 2014 is Berlin, which I'd say actually makes more sense. The film is an European production. It's not a Hollywood studio-backed film. The company behind it is a UK-based studio called Ealing, all of which (and more) might suggest that the film probably isn't being made specifically for American audiences. I'm sure they hope it'll play in the USA, but the USA is likely just one of several markets that it'll be released in; although it may be one of the secondaries; there may not even be any plans at the moment on a USA release. It certainly doesn't have a USA distributor yet.

But an international premiere at a major European festival like Berlin would certainly be splashy. It's also worth noting that Nina Simone eventually settled in France, where she would later die in 2003. I believe she lived in the country for the last 10 years of her life. So, once again making the case for an Euro debut. And if not Berlin, then the producers may be shooting for a festival that's even closer to "home" - the Cannes Film Festival in the South of France.

I'd be very surprised if it didn't premiere somewhere during the first half of 2014. And I would not at all be surprised if that premiere does NOT happen in North America. A splashy international debut, accompanied by strong reviews, could go a long way towards building anticipation for the film here in the USA, where it's been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism since Saldana was first announced as the film's star.

So now we watch and wait. 

But if anyone reading this has any inside info, or is aware of anything related to the film's status (last I checked a few months ago, it was in post-production), email me: obensont@gmail.com.

This article is related to: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo


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