We’ve chosen to educate ourselves on the blog collab this month by choosing only films about black lives, race and racism, starting strong with this documentary which charts the rise and ‘fall’ of Nina Simone’s fascinating career – from classical music darling to vilified civil rights activist.
All this via an abusive marriage, a catalogue of controversial songs and friendships with both Malcolm X and family, and Martin Luther King.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
A documentary about the life and legend Nina Simone, an American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist labeled the “High Priestess of Soul.”
Directed by: Liz Garbus
Starring: Nina Simone • Lisa Simone Kelly
I’m pretty easily pleased when it comes to documentaries, especially if the subject matter is explosive enough. I thought this was good given that I didn’t know nearly enough about its protagonist (some might say antagonist at times) – and I wanted to learn more. It turns out Miss Simone was as complex as she was talented, at times referred to as ‘crazy’ and certainly a difficult person to be around, particularly in her later years.
The film does a good job of reminding us what a fascinating woman she was but doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to the turbulence of her life – and interviews with her daughter and former husband reinforce that.
Classically trained in piano from an incredibly young age with a heart set on a ‘serious’ music career, she started singing in clubs – and changed her name from the slightly less flashy Eunice Kathleen Waymon to the Nina Simone we know and love today. Her rise to fame came fairly quickly, given her uniquely bluesy baritone and excellent piano playing skills. From here she met the man who was to become her husband and manager, a former cop who also brutally abused her, both physically and mentally.
The pair had a daughter – Lisa – who speaks candidly about the absence of her mother during her early years and later about how angry and abusive her relationship with Nina became.
“I think that the artist who don’t get involved in preaching messages is probably happier but you see, I have to live with Nina. And that is very difficult.” ~ Nina Simone
By far the most interesting segment of the doc is the one exploring Nina’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, an activity her husband more or less shrugged off, not understanding why she would waste her time with such things when she could be on the road earning the big bucks.
As the 1960s rolled on, Miss Simone became more and more radical, asking crowds if they were willing to kill for black liberation. She performed her controversial song, Mississippi Goddamn, during the Selma-Montgomery march in the presence of one Dr King and unsurprisingly, this worked against her, more or less derailing her glittering career.
“Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” ~ Maya Angelou
Near the matter part of the sixties, she eventually left her nightmare of a marriage and faltering music career, fleeing America to start a new life in Liberia.
Following the murder of Martin Luther and the rollercoaster of the revolution, Miss Simone had also suffered bipolar episodes and become addicted to pills. Liberia offered her a calmer pace of life in which she was finally happier – though when she sent for Lisa, she became the abuser in their relationship and her daughter eventually returned to the US to live with her father.
The later part of Miss Simone’s life is very sad to hear about as she traveled around Europe in a bit of a mess, finally settling in France, where she saw out the rest of her life.
It’s probably not a shock to learn that I didn’t know half of what this doc has taught me about its subject. Apart from the fact I like her music and Feelin’ Good is the ultimate Summer banger, I was in the dark about a lot of her life. Which is bullshit.
I’m really glad I now know more about this incredible person, who just couldn’t stay silent about the treatment of her people, even when her management really needed her to. It’s a lesson in never staying silent or compromising your beliefs whatever it costs you. Something I think we can all aspire to, especially now.
One of my favourite anecdotes is about the times she stopped playing while people were talking in the audience, ending the gig when they didn’t give her the attention she deserved. Later in a video clip, she shouts at an audience member to sit down. Which of course I love and respect so hard. Well behaved women seldom make history, after all.
Although I think a lot of the interviews, archival footage and Nina’s life speaks for itself, I thought the documentary was fairly balanced and well put together. I read a review somewhere that called it paint by numbers but honestly, I didn’t feel that myself.
What a woman and what a legacy to leave behind ❤️
What does my High Priestess of the Blog Collab think of this one? Would she fight for its rights using any means necessary or flee the country to get away from it? Find out here.