The Amazing Nina Simone

(USA 2015)

Amazing, indeed– both her talent and her life. This thorough documentary follows singer Nina Simone from her humble beginnings in a tiny North Carolina mountain town where she was Eunice Wayman through her death following a stroke in 2003. A piano prodigy early on thanks to her father– who her brother tells us is where her talent came from– Wayman’s dream of being America’s first black female classical concert pianist was dashed when the Curtis Institute rejected her application. She turned to nightclubs, changed her name to Nina Simone so her mother wouldn’t find out where she was working, and the rest as they say is history.

Director Jeff L. Lieberman touches on a lot of interesting stuff from every period of her life: Simone’s first marriage to a cute but lazy French sponge, her bisexuality, her association with Langston Hughes and MLK, her attitude toward the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and her mental instability that worsened as she got older. He rounds it out with interviews of those who knew her, music and civil rights history, and academic commentary.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B


(USA 2015)

Martin Luther King Jr. lived an amazing life, and it would take volumes to cover it. That’s why it was smart of director Ava DuVernay to focus on one key event—the freedom march on Selma—and not MLK’s entire life.

With Selma, DuVernay does a nice job downplaying the legacy and showing MLK as an imperfect man, flaws and fears and all. David Oyelowo lacks MLK’s intensity, but he pulls off the task of portraying the man. Seeing Oprah Winfrey play an unglamorous old lady is a surprise.

I have two issues here. One is technical: Selma looks and feels like a made-for-cable movie. The other issue is treatment: I would have liked the story to go a little deeper. Still, Selma is a film definitely worth its running time; in fact, it could have gone on and I probably would not have noticed.

With Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Jim France, Clay Chappell, Tom Wilkinson, Haviland Stillwell, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, David Morizot, David Dwyer, E. Roger Mitchell, Dylan Baker, Ledisi Young, Kent Faulcon, Stormy Merriwether, Niecy Nash, Corey Reynolds, Wendell Pierce, John Lavelle, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, Tim Roth, Nigel Thatch, Tara Ochs, David Silverman, Charles Saunders, Dexter Tillis, Cuba Gooding Jr.

128 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC 600 North Michigan) B