One night, I randomly found myself listening to Lupe Fiasco discussing the relationship between art and politics. At one point, he brought up Nina Simone and how she became more of a political activist which ultimately pigeonholed her artistry and slowly stifled her career. He recommended the Netflix biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) for those of us wanting to know more about her life and career. I thought to myself, why not keep the trend going and review another artist? Although it is a documentary and not a narrative where the story and script are crafted, I figured I would review it anyway especially because it seemed so authentic. Also, I was kind of interested in reviewing a documentary for the first time lol (I must warn you though, this review is loaded with spoilers).
Directed by Liz Garbus, What Happened, Miss Simone? relies on rare archival footage, diary excerpts and interviews with her close friends and family, including her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and her ex-husband and manager, Andrew Stroud. As our guide throughout this documentary, Nina Simone begins her story in North Carolina where she grew up as Eunice Waymon. She had exceptional talent at such a young age and was regularly playing gospel hymns on the piano for her local church. At the age of seven, she had come to study classical music with her teacher, Mrs. Mazzanovich, who felt that she would become the world’s greatest concert pianist. Although I was familiar with Nina Simone’s music, I had no idea that she was a classically trained pianist or that she furthered her education at Julliard. It was only after that realisation that I started to notice the infusion of classical music into her songs. After her application for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music had been rejected due to racism, Waymon had to find work and began performing at bars and jazz clubs to support her family. Out of fear of her mother finding out about her career choice, she changed her name to Nina Simone which marks her entry into showbusiness.
One cannot talk about Nina Simone’s music career without mentioning her involvement in the American Civil Rights movement. This is especially apparent in powerful songs such as “Mississippi Goddam”, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Strange Fruit.” Nina Simone was willing to sacrifice her career for her activism, and unapologetically used her platform to amplify the voices of African American men and women. As a result, the industry had boycotted her records and venues were reluctant to book her out of fear of her speaking her mind on stage. Not only did she take a political stance through her music, but in the documentary, we see that she also surrounded herself with black intellectuals such as Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin (she was even neighbours with Malcolm X and his family!). Lorraine Hansberry, in particular, was her best friend and taught her about Marx, Lenin and philosophy. Later on in her life, we hear Nina Simone reflecting on her music career in an interview where she states that she wouldn’t change being apart of the civil right movement but some of the songs she sang had hurt her career and were no longer relevant to the times. In my opinion, her music captures the essence of the political climate during that era and reflects the injustice and discrimination that many black people faced. Much of this injustice/discrimination, unfortunately, still exists today making her songs still as relevant as the day she released them. She was so different from the other entertainers of her time, and I have to give respect where it’s due.
The title of the documentary is a quote from Maya Angelou as she reflected on Nina Simone’s career: “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” This is a rather eerie yet stimulating question about such a complex woman. Despite her strong and fiery persona, Nina Simone was not only subjected to social abuse because of her career but she also suffered from domestic abuse at the hands of her husband/manager. It really perplexed me that someone who severely abused and exploited Nina Simone, was chosen to speak about her character and add to her story, especially after we hear Nina Simone say “He put a gun to my head, then he tied me up and raped me.” I guess I found myself trying to justify his presence in this documentary, although I never really felt comfortable with it myself. I was also shocked at some of Simone’s diary entries pertaining to the abuse where it appears that she was inviting physical violence. However, through her diary, we also see that she was battling depression and suicidal thoughts. After her split with Stroud, her relationship with her daughter also became difficult and abusive. Kelly stated that her mother went from being her comfort to the monster in her life, and that Simone was now the person doing the beating, but instead, beating her. At the end of the documentary, it was revealed that Nina Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which she had been suffering from for years – another fact that I had never known about her. The film does not expand very much on her mental illness, but it’s safe to say that it might have amplified her indignation and rage. It’s saddening that she didn’t have a better support system around her throughout her life. From day one, she had sacrificed everything for the sake of music, even as a child where she was often quite lonely. Her tough exterior might make it easier for the public to dismiss the idea of her suffering, but Nina Simone truly experienced more than her share of pain in her lifetime. In spite of it all, she was a survivor.
I enjoyed learning more about Nina Simone’s legacy, and Garbus did a great job weaving several of the songs that highlight her as a jazz/blues vocalist and a pianist into the film. Documentaries and biopics always manage to tug on my heartstrings, and What Happened, Miss Simone? was no different. Nina Simone described that if her life had taken a different path, she would have been happier had she become the first Black classical pianist that she had once aspired to be. In the film, we also hear her often say how much she wanted to be free, and in many ways, we found her chasing that freedom – chasing happiness. Freedom to her means to have “no fear,” and her music reflected this fearlessness that she was so desperate to acquire. Her story as presented in this documentary is quite compelling yet tragic, and all in all, the film does not bury her truth. I was able to leave this documentary with a better picture of who Nina Simone was and the struggles she went through, and appreciate her even more for her contribution to music as an artist and as a political activist.
**Film poster is credited to the movie What Happened, Miss Simone? (Distributed by Netflix)**