Terrorists are attacking black churches. Cities across the country are languishing under police brutality. College kids are organizing protests. The KKK is planning a march down the streets of a southern capital city. It seems like someone slipped and hit the playback button on United States history. This back-to-the future loop makes an unflinching examination of the life behind the seminal Civil Rights song, “Mississippi Goddam” all the more timely.
Nina Simone, like several of the mightiest giants of American music, began her career in the belly of Jim Crow.
The dynamics of Civil Rights movement forced Simone and many of her African American contemporaries to decide whether to serve as voices for progress or pander to decision makers of the entertainment industry. Simone, despite (and perhaps because of) her own personal struggles, rode hard for activism. The Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?,works hard to keep up.
What Happened Miss Simone? takes the full run of its 1 hour and 40 minutes to investigate a central question: How could a defiant survivor of a failed dream emerge as key artistic voice of a historical political movement only to then spiral down into squalor? The captivating documentary flits between several high quality sources, such as raw extracts of Nina Simone’s diaries, interviews with family and friends, and even clips of Simon giving us her take on a decades long struggle to keep up outward appearances. And of course, we get treated to several of her musical performances, too, which show her legendary skill and sometimes prickly nature with audiences, both of which became part of her trademark.
The film depicts a woman who “leaned in” and fought to “have it all” before these feminist movement clichés were articulated and certainly before the how-to books on these mantras were written. Nina Simone’s biggest obstacles to juggling a career and family, however, not only included the intersectionality of racism and sexism but also many of the inherent symptoms: domestic abuse, mental illness and even rape. Photographs and videos from the heydays of her fame present a stylish performer, striking regal poses for the press, despite being exhausted and often abused and overworked by her violent manager-husband.
Critics of the documentary might assert the film suggests Nina’s problems were caused by her mental illness, which went undiagnosed for years. But popular psychology theories say depression is rage turned inward, and certain mental illnesses, like the disorder with which Nina was finally diagnosed in her later years, can be set on by prolonged stress. What Happened Miss Simone? reveals an incredibly talented artist burdened by a great deal of justified rage and inordinate amount of stress without any support for most of her life. At one point, Simone suffered a breakdown backstage where she rubbed shoe polish into her hair before opening for Bill Cosby. But then we are told she was escorted on to stage to perform anyway.
Despite the heartbreaking moments, we are also left to marvel at the idea Nina Simone somehow managed to play a bad hand for the win. We need more like her. Like now.
- Nina Simone’s triumph as a young girl against the venue manager of her recital who wanted to seat her parents in the back row of the white audience
- Recollections of Simone’s camaraderie with other African American artists and activists, including Malcolm X, whose family who lived next door and often hosted Nina’s daughter
- Footage of Stokely Carmichael proclaiming the hypocrisy of non-violent advocacy during the Vietnam War
- Nina’s husband, who managed her career for several years, admitting to being non-supportive of her work in the Civil Rights Movement
- All of the Nina’s performance clips–24k gold