Unlike most singer-musicians today, Nina Simone never focused on creating or maintaining stage presence. She didn’t always make eye contact with audience members, her eyes flitted around when she played the piano; when she addressed the audience, she sometimes sounded as if she were speaking to herself. Simone, as a performer, never had to aim to capture attention — her voice did it for her. When she became an activist, she didn’t need to work to get people to listen to her — her revolutionary and startling songs and the voice with which she conveyed her unadulterated passion did it for her.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a Netflix documentary, directed by Liz Garbus, that explores Simone’s story through old performance footage, diary excerpts, newspaper articles and interviews with the people in her life, including her abusive ex-husband Andrew Stroud and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.
Born Eunice Waymon, Simone began playing piano at an early age and planned to become the first famous black concert pianist. She began performing late nights in bars and assumed a stage name so her mother wouldn’t know. Thus, Nina Simone was born.
“Sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”
Part of Simone’s appeal was that she was a woman who could easily reach tenor and baritone pitches. People flocked to hear her sing; they were drawn to the husky yet airy lightness to how she carried the melody in “I Love You Porgy,” or the playful hopping from note to note in “Love Me or Leave Me.” The unique, smoky timbre of her voice and her incredible skill as a pianist earned her a spot among the greats in jazz, blues and soul.
But though people loved Nina Simone, the singer, people did not always love Nina Simone, the black woman — a cultural sentiment that is unfortunately, glaringly familiar even now. The documentary features footage of her singing “I Love You Porgy” on Hugh Hefner’s show “Playboy Penthouse” surrounded by wealthy white people, and it highlights the contrast between entertainment and real life.
“I was a black girl, and I knew about it,” Simone says. As the Civil Rights movement grew, so did Simone’s involvement with it during the 60’s. Her song “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote after the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham, was revolutionary, and Lisa Simone Kelly says that due to how passionately she sang it at Selma, her voice broke — she lost an octave afterwards. Being black and a woman gave her a unique courage that startled those who saw it. In the words of Dick Gregory, “What she was doing was different. There’s something about a woman. If you look at all the suffering that black folks went through … Not one black man would dare say, Mississippi Goddam … We all wanted to say it. And she said it: Mississippi, goddam!”
In a familiar but effective move, Garbus uses Simone’s music as a soundtrack for footage of the civil rights protests, her voice mirroring the outrage, desperation and hope of the time. But Garbus also weaves in stories of Simone’s personal story. As with all documentaries that revolve around those who were not only at odds with society but struggling with themselves, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” walks the line between painting an unbiased portrait and romanticizing ugly stories. Her ex-husband was abusive; but as her daughter says about her, “she had this love affair with fire,” so she stayed with him for years. Stroud had more screen time given to him in this documentary than was needed. However, Garbus ultimately has created a documentary that holds its own, mainly because she steps back as a director and lets Simone tell her own story for much of it.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” feels especially urgent after the brutal murders of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, not to mention the racial unrest all over the country and increasing calls for drastic changes over the past few years. It’s impossible not to compare today’s turmoil to the events that inspired her performances of songs such as “Young, Gifted, and Black,” “Four Woman,” and especially, “Mississippi Goddam”:
“Can’t you see it / Can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air / I can’t stand the pressure much longer / Somebody say a prayer / Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest /
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam”
Though Simone’s intoxicating voice remains timeless, her lyrics may not shock people anymore; what is more jarring is how heartbreakingly relevant they still are, politically and socially, decades later in 2015.