It isn’t easy portraying an icon like Nina Simone. Just ask Zoe Saldana. However, Adepero Oduye takes on the hardest part of playing Simone—her incomparable stage presence—and gets at the essence of the artist in her exquisite short film To Be Free, which premieres today on the new streaming service, Le Cinema Club.
Screenwriter-director Oduye’s short takes its name from “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” a song originally composed by Dr. Billy Taylor, which would be covered by many artists—Simone’s recording arguably being the most popular rendition. However, the song Oduye performs while assuming Simone’s persona is actually “My Way,” the tune penned by Paul Anka that became Frank Sinatra’s theme song. Yet, Simone transformed it into something almost completely different.
Heaven knows Nina Simone could be dramatic on stage—just check out her infamous and awesome 1976 Montreux concert if you don’t know what we are talking about—but in this case, Oduye’s Simone is performing in front of a hip and idolizing crowd at an uptown late-night jam spot. They get Simone and her repertoire choices.
Oduye is pretty amazing on the bandstand. Jazz fans will be duly impressed by the real deal music she creates with musical director Vicente Archer on bass, Kwami Coleman on piano, Eric McPherson on drums, and Shakoor Sanders on percussion. Yet, even though most of the film consists of her vocal rendition, but it is still very much a fine piece of screen acting (think of it as being in the tradition of Audra McDonald’s portrayal of Billie Holiday on Broadway in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill).
To Be Free sounds terrific and it looks great, thanks to the mostly black-and-white cinematography of Bradford Young, who lensed big Hollywood releases like Arrival, as well as smaller jazz-related projects, such I Called Him Morgan and As Told to G/D Thyself. Clearly, he and Oduye were channeling the classic jazz photography of Francis Wolff and Herman Leonard in the way they frame their images and evoke an old school jazz vibe through the use of smoke and stage lights.
It is only thirteen minutes, but To Be Free is arguably Simone’s best big screen treatment yet, better representing her than even the Liz Garbus Netflix documentary. Very highly recommended, To Be Free is now streaming on Le Cinema Club.