There couldn’t be a more painfully appropriate time for a documentary portrait of brilliant, troubled jazz musician and activist Nina Simone. I mean, her civil rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” with just a geographical tweaking, would play just as pointedly today.
The anger and outrage Simone poured into performing that song, she says, literally “broke” her voice, making her unable to sing in the high octave reaches ever again. Of course, it’s that voice that we know to be her signature: “Sometimes I sound like gravel,” she says, “and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”
Premiering on Netflix this Friday, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” traces the roller coaster of Simone’s career, which initially pointed toward mainstream stardom but was derailed by the singer’s civil rights galvanization. “I think the artists who don’t get involved in preaching political causes are probably happier,” she muses, sadly, at one point. But in this wide-ranging portrait by director Liz Garbus, it’s easy to see why not getting involved wouldn’t have been an option for Simone, who seems chronically unable to not speak her mind, even when it came to patrons who wouldn’t stop talking, at which offense she might walk offstage. “If they couldn’t listen, fuck ’em,” she comments.
“Nina,” one friend observes, “was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate the woman’s genius.”
Garbus’ documentary is at its strongest when Simone tells her own story, whether performing or in voiceover from various interviews. Her stage presence is something to see; at least, I’d never seen it before. She seems at times almost contemptuous of her audience. Which, I suppose, she might sometimes have been. In one very curious early clip, she performs her hit rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” on the televised “Playboy Penthouse” after being introduced by host Hugh Hefner and surrounded by WASP-y white couples smoking and chatting.
Simone was approaching the height of her stardom as the civil rights movement was taking shape, and she seemed to find the elusive inspiration she’d been missing in friendships with luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., playwright Lorraine Hansberry (who wrote the lyrics for another one of her songs, “Young, Gifted and Black”) and Langston Hughes. “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the Birmingham church bombing, crystallizes her rage at American racism. “We all wanted to say it,” says Dick Gregory in an interview. “She said it.” At a later point, it’s revealed that “she walked up to Martin Luther King and said, ‘I’m not nonviolent!'” She developed friendships with separatists Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and in one memorable clip recites a poem by David Nelson for a large outdoor crowd:
“Are you ready to kill if necessary?”
“Are you ready to create life?”
“Are you ready to smash white things?”
“Are you ready to build black things?”
“Are you ready to call the wrath of Black Gods?”
“Are you ready to change yourself?”
But even as Simone found strength in embracing the movement, Garbus highlights a sad juxtaposition in the many ways she had to hide aspects of herself, beginning with her name, which she changed (she was born Eunice Waymon) to keep her mother from finding out she had gone off the path of classical piano and was making money, early on, performing in a divey piano bar.
Worse, she was physically and emotionally abused by her husband, Andrew Stroud, who left his job as a police officer to become her manager — and regularly beat her when he wasn’t berating her for not working hard enough. In her letters (and possibly journals — Garbus often zooms in on her handwriting without specifying to whom Simone was writing, if anyone) she also discusses depression, and would later in life be diagnosed as bipolar.
If the documentary suffers from anything, it’s having a subject too complex to be explained in under two hours. Simone’s staggering talent and passion for political activism bump up against her daughter’s increasingly tragic descriptions of her own experience of Simone as first an absentee mother and then a “monster” who abused her physically. Simone’s memorable stage performances — her unwillingness to smile and play nice for the audience, her tendency to stop and stare into space — seem equally attributable to her hearing the Muse or to the always-looming spectre of mental illness. She left her husband and child and moved to Liberia, then Paris, where a friend found her looking downright homeless. In later years, she made a comeback as a singer, but never found the spark of activism quite the same way after so many untimely deaths. When asked about civil rights, she responded, “There aren’t any civil rights. Everyone’s gone.”
But from early on, she was always clearly inclined to stand up for what she felt was right. As a child piano prodigy, she relays in one anecdote, she was set to play a recital in a white church where her parents were made to stand at the back. Simone refused to play until they were seated in front.
It’s hard not to come away from the film wishing for the singer to be around to weigh in on the events of last week, last month, last year. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she says at one point. One wonders what her reflection would be today.