Iconic cultural figures are often placed on pedestals. They remain mysterious to us and we are left to speculate about their lives and experiences. It is rare for someone who has been so revered and idolized globally to have the opportunity to share their own story. Using Nina Simone’s own words, interviews with her family and friends, as well as footage from her life, Academy Award nominated director Liz Garbus paints a portrait of a woman who was both a master, and a victim of her time. Nina Simone’s life was one of both unimaginable success and gut wrenching suffering.
Reflecting back on life is no easy feat, it’s often a painful task to undertake, leaving the subject vulnerable and exposed; their flawless image forever riddled with unpleasant truths. And yet, when these truths are brought to light, it is the humanity of that subject that shines through.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” acts as an introduction for new fans of Nina Simone, while providing a deeper understanding of the songstress for long time supporters. The film chronicles Nina Simone from her humble beginnings to her modest end.
Garbus’ documentary works so well because of its structure. Simone was a woman who desired more than the world was willing to give. Garbus eschews typical documentary style filmmaking, allowing Simone’s own perspective on her own work and life to shine through. Though her voice was glorious, her real forte was her ability to embody revolution through her music. Despite push-back, Nina Simone’s musical contributions to society during the Civil Right’s movement, gave her drive and purpose.
The film also deals with a subject that is often overlooked or ignored entirely in the African American community – mental illness. From childhood, Nina Simone felt ostracized, first by the Black community because of her dark skin and her dedication to the piano, and later by whites who initially ignored her talent. Later on, her tumultuous marriage, coupled with the stress of show business and revolution, only exasperated the demons that she constantly struggled against. As her celebrity grew, Simone’s anger and feelings of isolation grew with it. As she said, “I have to live with Nina, and that’s very difficult.”
Though the film succeeds in acknowledging Simone’s illness; I was left uneasy. Her symptoms were dealt with for the sake of the music; however, many questions are left unanswered concerning her initial downward spiral.
Still, the film is poignant in that it deals with a time not-so unlike the one we are in now. Simone’s yearning for freedom and Civil Rights spilled into her music. Unfortunately, both her professional and personal life were crippled by a lack of agency.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a labor of love that avoids a traditional documentary filmmaking formula that we are accustomed to seeing when dealing with subjects now lost. It’s an astounding work that is both jarring and unapologetic in its examination of a musical genius. It forces its audience to come to grips with black artistry, womanhood and mental illness. We all have dreams and aspirations, but the documentary leaves us wondering what happens when the thing you love most begins to haunt you.
“What Happen, Miss Simone?” comes to Netflix June 26th.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami