Triumph and Tragedy in What Happened Miss Simone? : A Review

Used with permission

Often both melancholy and musical genius operate simultaneously. We see this in the current 2015 documentary, Amy, the film about the musical genius Amy Winehouse. Similarly, Nina Simone was a musical genius who suffered with depression. She used her artistry to provoke blacks and whites to action.  She also used her ingenuity to propel blacks to have pride in their culture and in themselves individually and collectively. She was a tragic figure in the sense that her politics both gripped and consumed her to the point of ruining her career. She was a focused musician who believed that her music should have a purpose.  Because she had not had a “voice” to speak out about the racism during the Jim Crow Era, she used the Civil Rights Movement as the catalyst that ignited her to action. She began to surround herself with artists and activists of the time so that she could gain intellectual knowledge and support for her music and to develop pride within her race. The Brooklyn Museum, last year featured a civil rights exhibit that played a recording of Nina Simone’s audacious song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” I had never heard her song about Mississippi before that day. To my recollection at the exhibit there were no dialectics to explain what prompted her to sing that song. After seeing that exhibit, I researched Simone’s work, and I later read an article in The New Yorker about an upcoming movie, starring Zoe Saldana, about Nina Simone.  There has been some controversy about Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone (Saldana’s face is darkened), and whether the movie will make it to the big screen is somewhat dicey because it does not have the support of Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. Kelly is the owner of all the footage and the one who holds the rights to the music. As a result, the movie is still in flux.

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A documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, however, was both recently produced and released via Netflix.  It was directed by Liz Garbus and produced by Amy Hobby. It has the complete support of Ms. Simone’s daughter, who, along with others, attempts to explain the rise and fall of her mother. The documentary explores Simone’s (born Eunice Waymon) beginnings as a pianist, and her rise to fame.  It also charts her career, through archival footage and interviews of her coterie of friends including: her business associates, her husband, her child, and her neighbors. It explores her legendary career as a blues, folk, and jazz singer who ultimately became a civil rights activist through her musical career.  Lastly, the documentary explores what may be interpreted as Simone’s character flaws or mistakes as both a musician and a human being. Her work became all-consuming, and it catapulted her to heights that no black female musician of the time had reached. After seeing the documentary and reading subsequent articles about Simone, I now have historical context for her music and for the trajectory of her life. If Simone had anger as a character flaw it was because her passion for racial freedom was intense. She was not able to temper the extreme passion that she felt was needed to speak out against racial injustice, and to give blacks a sense of culture and pride in their race.

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The documentary opens with a statement from Maya Angelou that stated, “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even love, by millions now.  But what happened, Miss Simone?   Her daughter attempts to answer that question through the documentary as it continues with Simone performing a concert in which she is described as “the incredible, unique, and fantastic, one and only Nina Simone.”  Indeed Simone was all of the adjectives described and more. The film attempts to explain the triumphs and the heartaches suffered by Simone. Nina Simone suffered a series of disappointments as an adolescent and as a young adult. The movie charts Simone as a young girl who was taught how to play the piano by her mother.  She was noticed by a white woman who began to give her lessons in classical piano.  Simone continued playing the piano, practicing nearly eight hours a day, making her further alienated by both the white and the Negro communities.  She said that she felt isolation, “All the time, even when the kids used to play with me.”  Children often asked her to play the piano or to dance.  They were not interested in her for any other reason.   As a child she was not taught to consciously deal with race.  It was not talked about in her home. Her piano teacher, however, was an anomaly during that era. She started a fund to pay for her to further her musical education. Simone excelled as a pianist, and later applied to Julliard where she was enrolled for a year and a half until the money for enrollment was depleted. She later applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was denied admission, and later realized months later that she was denied because she was black. Ironically, two days before her death, she was granted an honorary diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music. Simone had but one hope, which was to become the first classical African-American pianist to play classical music at Carnegie Hall. Sadly, she never fully achieved that goal.  When she was allowed to play at Carnegie Hall (through her husband’s promotion), she was not allowed to play classical piano.  She was forced to sing jazz and blues tunes, the music for which she had become known. One song that she chose to sing at Carnegie Hall, one may believe, was in tribute to the audience. The lyrics included ” I can’t go on without you/ Your love is all I’m living for/ I love all things about you/ Your heart, your soul, my love. The lyrics fully explained the ebullience that she was feeling to finally sing at Carnegie Hall. Her career reached greater heights after that appearance.

The documentary moves methodically through Simone’s early years as a singer as she began to incorporate civil rights activism within her music.  In an interview she is asked  the question about what it means to be free.  She states that it is hard to describe.  Ultimately, Simone says freedom means having no fear. She says it is just a feeling. She says “you know it when it happens.” The lyrics to one of her songs says ” I wish I could share /All the love that’s in my heart/ Remove all the bars/ that still keep us apart/ I wish you could know/ what it means to be me/ Then you’d see and agree/ That every man should be free/ I wish I could give/ All I’m longing to give.” This song fully sums up Simone’s beliefs about the integration of humanity.

The film also chronicles the abuse Stroud inflicted on Simone. Specifically, Simone details one of his brutal assaults against her. Like many women, she continued to stay with him, believing that he would not physically abuse her again. He gives a cursory statement about one of the arguments that he and Simone had, and tries to minimize the effects of the abuse. She later leaves him, and subsequently divorces him because of the abuse and because he did not share her same passion for the music she began to write.

This movie is worth seeing. It gives a great view of Simone’s life, and the predilections that drove her to fame and infamy.  I cannot help but wonder if making this documentary was cathartic for Kelly because of the devastating events that she suffered during her childhood. The music in the film is also great and it was nicely infused into the entire story . The lyrics to the music were written out to further highlight the passion and genius of Nina Simone. The film superbly begins and ends with the song about wanting to be free. The racial sentiment of the sixties as well as life’s disappointments resulted in Simone’s uncontrolled anger and rage.  That is what happened to Miss Simone.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

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