By Vanessa Martinez | Shadow and Act August 15, 2012 at 9:43PM
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
The King of Love is Dead
I Put A Spell on You
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
I Shall Be Released
Here Comes The Sun