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We've Read It! Shadow And Act's Thoughts On Nina Simone Feature Project Screenplay

by Vanessa Martinez
August 15, 2012 9:43 PM
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Nina Simone

I just read a draft of the still-untitled screenplay for the Nina Simone feature film project, penned by Cynthia Mort (Will & Grace, Roseanne) dated April 2, 2011.  The script is based on Nina Simone’s 1992 autobiography I Put A Spell On You, which centers on her relationship with Clifton Henderson, a nurse Simone met while institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital in California.

We know David Oyelowo is slated to star in the role of Clifton. And very recently, we posted Zoe Saldana’s alleged attachment to the film in the role of Simone, but that hasn't been fully confirmed yet.

The story, although set in the early 1990’s for much of the main narrative – a love story between Simone and her young assistant - is anachronistically told through intermittent flashbacks: an 18 year-old Nina reading a rejection letter from the Curtis Institute; Nina playing at a nightclub in 1962; Nina as a young child refusing to play in her school’s auditorium unless her parents sit up front, and so on.

In one of the opening scenes, an enraged, belligerent, foul-mouthed, mentally unstable Simone, now 60, assaults a cop on her way into the psychic ward. She’s an alcoholic. She’s under the care of a young male nurse (Clifton), whom Nina seems to instantly bond with because he’s black; he agrees to become her assistant and move with her to France.

From here on, Clifton bears the incredible challenge of caring for the embittered, demanding, volatile, promiscuous and alcoholic Simone. However, Simone begins harboring real feelings for Clifton; and a genuinely loving - yet complex - relationship develops between her and the much younger man.

But the real highlight of it all is Nina Simone performing. These sequences are meant to not only capture her genius talent, but Nina’s spirit and inner turmoil. She tells her life through her songs, and also expresses what she’s not able to when she’s not performing.

Other than that however, we get glimpses of her past joys; and also struggles as a Black woman during the civil rights movement in flashbacks: Nina sharing a laugh with Lorraine Hansberry prior to performing To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a song she dedicated to Hansberry; Nina honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at his funeral, and a scene of Nina sharing a joint with Richard Pryor while both reflect on their lives.

There’s more obviously. But, much more is omitted, like her marriage to Andrew Stroud - who later became her manager - aside from a short flashes of an upset Nina rummaging through his things, or of his presence while her only daughter was a baby. Also Simone’s daughter, whom she regretfully neglected as a child due to her work and partying, is only depicted as a baby and a toddler.

Ultimately, the project is meant to honor the passionate soul and sensitive nature – yet resilience- of an immense talent, who, despite her grand achievements, struggled with remorse, insecurity, feeling unloved and misunderstood.

The film’s success really depends on the execution. Perhaps with the right performers, editing, cinematography and direction, this could be an interesting, compelling film. Without it, it could be a mess, suffer from a lack of substance and other ills, like, bad acting.

In the script, Nina’s redemption- personal and artistic, comes through her relationship with Clifton. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps he really did have a great impact in her later years. I’m not sure if they kept in touch through the end of her life.

The script certainly makes it seem that way. Some would call it simplistic and romanticized.

There are touching scenes here, especially between the main characters; but really, aside from David Oyelowo delivering in his role of Clinton, a nuanced, gripping and soulful performance for Simone’s character is key.

It will be interesting to find out the casting choices for Simone at the different stages of her life. A child actor will obviously be cast to play 7-year old Nina. Another actress may be cast to portray Simone from the age of 18 through her 30’s.

But since the story takes place in the early 1990’s, when Simone was around 60, I wonder if an older actress may be cast. However, and most likely, with make-up work, one actress may transform physically from young adulthood and on.

Of course the most current draft of the script may be different from this draft I read, and some things may have changed.

So who else is there left to cast, besides the eccentric icon and High Priestess of Soul, that may be of interest to us?

HEATHER, 20's, very pretty, a little slicker than Clifton– her race is not specified.  She’s from Clifton’s Chicago hometown. He’s been pining for her for the past five years. She’s in only one scene in which Simone invites her and Clifton, along with Clifton’s parents, out to see her perform.

Clifton's FATHER, He's a big guy with a dark engaging presence. Clifton looks nothing like him- There is a pretty long scene in which Clifton’s parents meet Simone at their home.

Clifton's MOM, pretty – She’s a big fan of Simone.

OLIVIA, a nurse, 30, young, pretty, but serious– She is Clifton’s girlfriend in the latter part of the film. No race is specified, although we can assume she is French and White; in a scene in which Clifton is having dinner with Olivia and her extended family, “No one is black, none speak English.”

RICHARD PRYOR, totally MS'd out, but still Richard – perhaps an older actor would be cast here, since Pryor is introduced in the early 90’s. Another scene appearing Pryor takes place in 1961 while Pryor and Nina wait backstage to be introduced for their acts. Maybe a young actor will be cast?

LORRAINE HANSBERRY, 34 – Set in 1964 Harlem, Simone and Hansbury are “drinking and hanging.” Hansbury encourages Nina to sing and play the piano for her.

Like I mentioned earlier, the highlight of the project is truly Simone’s music. She performs the following songs:

Black Is The Color

Tell Him I Love Him

To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Wild is The Wind

Just Like A Woman

Four Women

Mississippi Goddamn

The King of Love is Dead

I Put A Spell on You

Feeling Good

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Brown Baby

I Shall Be Released

Here Comes The Sun

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  • byrd | October 28, 2012 1:10 AMReply

    The joke of this so called biopic is that Clifton Henderson was gay, had no love affair with Nina Simone and this ignorant director Cynthia Mort not only does not have the support of the Nina Simone Estate or her living daughter, they never even bothered to contact them. This is sure to be a completely whitewashed disrespect to the legacy of the "High Priestess of Soul".

  • rich | October 16, 2012 7:23 PMReply

    Any consideration of India Aire???

  • sh | October 16, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    There is a petition started for the consideration of Tichina Arnold to play the role of Nina Simone. She's not just a comedic actress & is a true vocalist. Please don't scoff because you can only think of her as "Pamela James" from Martin. Check out her dramatic turns in "The Lena Baker Story" and her vocals in any number of things. Check out "Tichina Arnold to Star in the Nina Simone Biopic" Facebook page please, then judge. Thank-You:)

  • starry118 | August 22, 2012 11:44 PMReply

    For anyone who is not aware, there is a petition on, against the casting, that already has 1,700 signatures on it. I was not able to post the entire link here, but found it by doing a search for "Nina Simone" on the site.

  • DL | August 22, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    I could see kerry washington in this role easily and perhaps even being nominated for an oscar or at the very least oscar this oculd be a huge opp for her she fits the bill in terms of comericality selling and promoting it she can act and she is at LEAST darkskinned without make up head wrap and jewlry she could easily pass for nina all the others suggested dont have as much recognizablity in europe as kerry does - im british so i know what im talking about as far as kerry being well known.

  • Mandla | August 21, 2012 7:16 PMReply

    "a nuanced, gripping and soulful performance for Simone’s character is key." This being said, Viola Davis hands down with Adepero Oduye as a younger Nina. Perfect casting if I say so myself.

  • B | August 22, 2012 12:39 AM

    I completely agree.

  • Segun | August 20, 2012 5:47 PMReply

    While reading some of the comments posted here, I was shocked to discover that some level of ethnic discrimination exists among African-Americans. However, I don't know how Zoë came into the picture but I hope she won't be the one to play Nina Simone 'cause I understand Adepero Oduye was originally picked for that role. Albeit I like Zoë Saldana (she's talented and very gorgeous) but I agree with those who feel Pero (Oduye) is most apt to play the legendary singer and that includes a certain writer who posted a 'Casting Call' article on this blog months ago which emphasized on how Pero looks exactly like Nina.

  • SOULWIZE | August 18, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    Two words. Lauryn Hill.

  • jazman49 | August 18, 2012 6:41 AMReply

    "...Simone begins harboring real feelings for Clifton; and a genuinely loving - yet complex - relationship develops between her and the much younger man..." What kind of feelings did Nina have for Clifton? It could have been nothing more than plutonic considering that he was already in a monogamous relationship...with another man. Ask Nina's daughter.

  • SAB | August 20, 2012 9:01 PM

    Or ask me. I knew Clifton the entire time he knew Nina Simone. He was gay, gay and gay. I observed his relationship with Nina Simone. He worked for her, they treated each other well, but there was no romance because they both liked sex with men. Clifton was exclusively gay and was in a monogamous relationship. Also, Nina Simone did not have to pester her employees for sex. Her circle included world leaders and very famous people. She did not have an affair with Clifton.

  • Vanessa Martinez | August 18, 2012 10:27 AM

    @Jazman49 - Romantic feelings. It's a love story. They become lovers. I didn't want to give away spoilers.

  • jazman49 | August 18, 2012 6:42 AM

    My bad. plutonic=platonic.

  • Miles Ellison | August 16, 2012 8:23 PMReply

    This will not end well.

  • Robin | August 16, 2012 5:06 PMReply

    If it's based on Nina in her sixties, why not cast Whoopi? ... Something to think about.

  • Nikki | August 16, 2012 9:53 AMReply

    The last thing Beyonce needs to be doing is ACTING! She can't act her way out of a paper bag. Sure, she can sing, but hasn't she played a singer in damn near every film that she's been in? ENOUGH ALREADY!

  • the black police | August 16, 2012 11:54 AM


  • CareyCarey | August 16, 2012 7:11 AMReply

    **DRUM ROLL.. REALITY CHECK**---> "this [is a] art movie which has a very small audience to begin with." Yep, I believe it was also said the original budget was close to 10 million (low by todays standards). Another reality check is the fact that the overwhelming majority of moviegoers knows little or nothing about the life and times of Nina Simone (I believe that's safe to say). So, focusing on her looks will have the least impact on the quality or "success" of this film, imo (if it's ever sees the light of day). Having said that, I have a few questions. Did Denzel look like Rubin "Hurricane" Carter? Nope... they were not the same size ( Denzel is 4 inches taller), nor body type, nor "color". Another: Why did Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar for Dreamgirls? Was it her acting, her singing, the supporting cast, the script, the directers ability to direct black actor s and thus capture the small nuances of the black experience, or the music, or a combination of them all? Having said THAT, can or should a white person ( as ALM mentioned) write the screenplay and do it justice? Personally ( I've had this debate with Tambay (we disagreed)... personally, I'd be hard pressed to champion any film directed and written by a white person, that I believe nailed the small nuaces of our cultural identities, which ultimately personified/captured who we are (in all our complexities)... EXCEPT Taylor Hackford, the writer and director of "Ray". However, having said that, he had help... Ray Charles was still around and he had a wonderful cast of seasoned actors. Additionally, Mr Hackford "lived" with the project look before it reached the screen. But let me go back, Vanessa did a wonderful job with this post... she did her homework. She gave us Nina Simone with all her warts, scratches and problems, without pulling punches nor giving judgement. In essence, through her writing style she pulled me in, captured my attention and then continued to add small tidbits of interesting aspects of the storyline. Also, I love the way she gave us small descriptions of the other character **hugging Vanessa**. Oh, that reminds me, did I ask, how "important" is the rest of the cast? Who can name two actors and characters (off the top of your head) in Hurricane, besides Denzel? Sidebar: LORRAINE HANSBURY has a story all her own. Okay, I could go on about this project because I really liked the way Vanessa set this up and thus peaked my interests. And, since the Zoe Saldana thang has been beat to death, and the other usual suspect (popular actors) have been suggested, I am going to throw Beyonce in the ring. Yes, that's what I said, Jay-Z's Baby's Mama, not drama. Hey, I'm serious. I know some will say she can't act but how did she handle our other iconic figure, Etta James? Etta had a substance abuse problem ( so did Nina Simone) and Beyounce captured the spirit of that, didn't she? Listen, if we're talking entertainment, star power and someone who can sing, Beyonce should be considered. Look, Vanessa said "the highlight of the project is truly Simone’s music". Sooooo, in my opinion, many of the suggested actresses are off the table. Anyway, speaking of Nina's songs, I love Donnie Hathaway's version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It's truly a wonderful song... inspiring too! Check it out-->

  • CareyCarey | August 17, 2012 1:20 AM

    Shiiit, you know Bondgirl that I'm a convicted bank robber (true story) so my motto has always been "if you're going to do the damn thang, do it right and do it big!". So hell, the shit was getting so ridiculous, I thought to myself "why not throw Beyonce's big-rich-fat-fine-ass on the plate?" . But you said it right, this is a business move. And the shaker and the players are doing what they do best... moving pawns on the chess board of life and making money the old fashioned way. And Zoe is the new ***** in town.

  • bondgirl | August 16, 2012 1:16 PM

    Beyonce, CC? You crack me up! As for this "art film", it shouldn't be dismissed as small given the number of indie films that make its way to Oscar and a global platform. I remember a tiny little film called Girls Don't Cry that gave its lead star an Oscar, and catapulted her stardom. Speaking of which, THR has an article source calling Zoe a bonafide movie star, which explains why she was chosen over Adepero (both actors are with the same agency). She can get the financial backing that Oduye cannot currently pull. We can smirk at Colombiana or her peripheral role in Takers, but Avatar and Star Trek gave her a seat at the A-List table. If there is an heir apparent nipping at Halle's heels, it's her. MJB isn't A-List, so her casting made even less sense. Also, I wish black people around the world would get used to the idea of African-Latinas and their duality. Some of the past comments regarding Zoe's blackness are making her a scapegoat for a lot of other Latino entertainers, who shy away from their lineage.

  • Barb B | August 16, 2012 3:08 AMReply

    I won't see if Zoe plays Nina. Call jealousy if you want but we damn well its deeper than that.

  • KI | October 16, 2012 12:46 PM

    No, Barb is right, and you have no cause to use the word bigot on this instance. I saw who they got to play Abraham Lincoln, and it wasn't all about his bankability at the cinema; it's because they respect the HELL out of the person at the center of the so-called "biopic", so the actor NEEDS to embody and resemble the subject. No one would go for Lincoln being played by Will Smith, or another completely inappropriate actor for that role, but because it's just this Black woman, it's ok to make money off her life while not even respecting her enough to get an actor who somewhat resembles her.

  • mark | August 18, 2012 5:04 PM

    No, I'd say you were just an ignorant bigot. :-)

  • vdub | August 16, 2012 1:21 AMReply

    be worried. be verrry, verrry worried.

  • Rel | August 16, 2012 12:33 AMReply

    I'm going to 2nd Zoe as Lorraine Hansberry, I think Adepero Oduye, Danai Gurira or Aisha Hinds of True Blood fame would all be excellent choices for The High Priestess. In regards to her looks, I think Nina aged very gracefully and grew more beautiful as she aged and became more assured of herself.

  • Nikki | August 15, 2012 11:42 PMReply

    I would LOVE to see someone like Anika Noni Rose play Nina. Zoe doesn't give me Nina vibes. And can Zoe even sing? Because if she can't, she'll be doing a great disservice to the legacy of Nina by lip-syncing. At least convince me that you KNOW what you're doing. Authenticity accounts for something.

  • ary | August 15, 2012 11:39 PMReply

    beautiful viola should play beautiful nina.

  • No | August 15, 2012 11:29 PMReply

    Yeah, I'd like to see Viola Davis play Nina Simone.

  • the black police | August 15, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    The whole Zoe thing is a marketing ploy to get people talking about the movie. It worked.

  • Missy | August 15, 2012 11:16 PMReply

    Based on this info, I suspect --and hope-- Zoe is actually playing Lorraine Hansberry and NOT Nina. That seems like a better fit. *shrugs*

  • ALM | August 15, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    I'm still wondering what qualifies Cynthia Mort to pen the screenplay for this biopic.

  • SAB | August 20, 2012 9:04 PM

    Nothing qualifies Ms. Mort to write or direct this story. The script sucks, it's not even good enough for Lifetime. Nina Simone was an integral part of the US civil rights movement and that was the period in which she was part of history. After that she was a fabulous entertainer, but her private life was as dull as dishwater (which is why Ms. Mort fabricated that stupid story about her romance with Clifton Henderson, who was about as heterosexual as RuPaul.)

  • JMac | August 15, 2012 10:46 PMReply

    Thanks Vanessa! With all that info, it seems unlikely the Zoe rumor is true. With all those flashbacks I can see most of the actresses suggested in the other thread playing different ages in Nina's life - although there will be a toss up between India Arie (does she act?) and Adepero. I hope they don't try to age one actress if the makeup is similar to J. Hud's in the Winnie Mandela movie.

  • I'm just sayin.... | August 15, 2012 10:42 PMReply

    Let's cut to it. Nina was a very unattractive, crazy lady who made great music. Casting the pretty black Latina who is careful to distance herself from her black heritage alienates the black audience of this art movie which has a very small audience to begin with. Why wouldn't you cast Viola Davis in this role? She's prettier than Nina really was but you believe her not feeling pretty about herself.

    btw, Mary was also miscast in this film. I'd rather see a Mary J Blige movie about her life than Mary in a Nina Simone movie, and it would certainly make more money.

  • B | August 22, 2012 12:45 AM

    @Muse: Thank you for speaking some sense about this comment. I was shaking my head as I read all the "Nina is ugly" comments. Sad.

  • Muse | August 18, 2012 2:45 PM

    Wow, this is so sad and pathetic how brainwashed you all are, especially as people who are invested in a visual medium. You all drank so much propaganda koolaid that for you all it's a "given" that Saldana is pretty and Simone is not. And even worse, most casting directors, and a whole lot of black folks with internalized self-hatred share your anti-black woman aesthetic. To those of you who say she's "unattractive," what is the criteria by which you base that opinion? IJS, for you to call Simone unattractive and crazy as if that's some kind of self-evident truth shows how little you think of her while throwing a bone about her great artistry. And then you do a classic gaslighting troll move by throwing out a grenade then asking folks to focus on the "real" issue of casting. Calling women some variation of "ugly" (particularly bw) has ALWAYS served as an attempt to bring great women down a peg (just ask Gabby Douglas, Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, Grace Jones, the Williams Sisters, Shirley Chisholm, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Sarah Vaughn, Moms Mabley, Harriet Tubman, I could go on) and you unwittingly played right into that dynamic. Boomslang et al, stop acting brand new like you all don't know what I'm referring to with classic West African features. Most African-Americans descended from West Africa (*facepalm* that I even had to explain that).

  • Boomslang | August 16, 2012 7:52 AM

    I am laughing at the idea that Nina had "classic west african features" . uh... Nina is no more african than she is african american. And come on people , I love me some Nina and I know that the good woman was NOT beautiful and I am okay with that.She is no more African than Maya Angelew or Loredda Devine.
    Many african americans have this idea that if an african american is unnatractive, to excuse nature's poor sample.That person has to be "african". I cannot think of a better example of soft reverse racism.

    Docile eurocentric puppets tryna dish advice ? lmao!

  • JustSaying | August 16, 2012 12:59 AM

    No, I was making a point in regard to opinions vs. facts. Your opinion of Nina's appearance will forever remain an opinion now matter how many people agree. I am not interested in who the world thinks is more attractive because that has nothing to do with the point I'm making in regard to opinions. Stay focused.

  • Justsaying | August 15, 2012 11:35 PM

    I know you may feel strongly about Nina Simone's appearance but these feelings will always be OPINIONS NO MATTER how many people possess such feelings. I know some people who feel Zoe Saldana is a couple layers of makeup away from looking like she rolled up out the morgue, and yet it is their opinion. Let's stay focused.

  • the black police | August 15, 2012 11:18 PM

    LMAO @ "classis west african featuures". Um I know plenty of beautiful BLACK AFRICAN women. Nina is not beautiful physically. Damn is it a crime to admit that? Was she talented? No doubt. Zoe does not look like her so she souldnt play her. Case closed. But yes Nina is ugly. And thats ok.

  • Muse | August 15, 2012 11:03 PM

    IJS, you're what's wrong with the world. You are the reason why casting agents feel justified in placing light-skinned, "Eurocentric" looking black/mixed actresses (i.e. the kind of women you and millions of others have been programmed to automatically view as "attractive") in roles as Harriet Tubman and Nina Simone, because actresses who ACTUALLY resemble those historical figures are written off as "unmarketable" and "unattractive" thanks to folks like you who are among the brainwashed masses. What would possess you to come on a site that celebrates the African diaspora in film (a VISUAL medium) and disrespect a woman for her classic West African features? You are a troll of the lowest order.

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