I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I’ve performed, I just want them to be in pieces. I want to go into the den of those elegant people, with their old ideas, smugness, and just drive them insane.
The first song by Nina Simone that I ever heard was a cover of “Lilac Wine.” What I felt when listening defies anything that I can articulate well, or at all, in the space I have here—but I can say that it was one of those rare experiences of encountering a truly otherworldly voice, one that is unmistakable in both its quality and masterful wildness. If a furnace could sing, that furnace would be Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone? takes a nuanced look at the life of this astounding artist—a woman of unmistakable musical prowess and fierce intellect, whose career and political activism warred with each other constantly. Though I am usually hesitant to assign the label “genius” indiscriminately (or at all) to any given human being, I find that I have no trouble doing so with Nina and her consummate facility with music. And if experiencing that music were not sufficient—and it is, truly, an experience—then this documentary of her life does more than enough to re-present her in a way that points to the depth of her complexity, suffering, and disharmony with a world that both loved and feared her.
Drawing from rarely-seen footage, performances, and interviews with her family members and close friends, What Happened, Miss Simone? examines her personal life and musical career with great delicacy and compassion. Produced by Lisa Simone Kelly (Nina Simone’s daughter), Kelly offers a close perspective on her mother’s life both in and out of the public eye, but deftly avoids the usual pitfalls of “up close and personal” documentaries that prove to be more invasive than illuminating. Here, we gain a broader picture of Simone’s worldwide success: her life in the South, the beginning of her career and ambition to be the first black female classical pianist, her entry into the entertainment business by necessity rather than choice, and her magnetic ability to attract similarly gifted artists who complemented her strengths. We also learn of Simone’s difficult struggle with clinical depression—undiagnosed and untreated for most of her lifetime—and the cycle of spousal abuse she endured at the hands of her husband, who managed her career.
We gain a complex portrait, too, of her fall from the limelight in the wake of her civil rights activism. As her political leanings in the U.S. became progressively more severe in the face of violent turmoil, and as the political chokehold on the black community continued to squeeze tighter throughout the '60s, so too did the force of her lyricism. “To me, America’s society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured,” Simone says in an interview. “[But] I am not the doctor to cure it. All I can do is expose the sickness…. I think that the artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages probably are happier, but you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult.”
Punitive backlash against women who show strong emotion is nothing new, especially when the woman in question is black. To be dismissed as merely angry or ranting is an all too common occurrence—a swift and often effective way of silencing voices of protest. But we find in Nina Simone a true nonconformist, a woman who found a way in her art to reveal both mettle and tenderness all at once. And she is still loved for it. Long before #BlackGirlMagic had a name assigned to it, Nina Simone was a forerunner of this kind of celebration.
Perhaps this is one of the greatest signs of true creative mastery: an artist's ability to look into an audience that seeks to silence her, and leave that opposition speechless in return. This kind of speechlessness is different from silencing, in that it seeks to enrich rather than diminish, for the power of art to move and persuade may be credited less to punditry than to its ability to reach some depth of ineffable human experience.
In asking the question “What happened?”, this documentary blends personal, historical, and societal considerations into one—or rather, it reveals how these things are already inextricably connected to begin with. And it brings to light the incredibly profound story of a woman and artist who refused to reduce her complexity for the consumption of others, while still offering herself to a global community that didn’t quite understand her. Attallah Shabazz said it better than I ever could: Nina “was not at odds with the times—the times were at odds with her.”