The question, first asked in a poem by Maya Angelou, is answered memorably
in Liz Garbus new documentary about the famed singer. Produced by
Netflix, the bio-pic paints a startling portrait of the talented and tortured
Nina Simone, one of the most unique artists to ever gain prominence in
the jazz world.
Simone was born in 1933 in the Jim Crow south. Eunice Waymon (her real
name) was a child prodigy whose dream was to become a classical pianist
and perform Bach at Carnegie Hall. That dream was shattered when the Curtis
School of Music refused for racial reasons to accept her as a student.
To make a living, Simone had to take a job playing and warbling in an
Atlantic City gay bar. Although she went on to achieve success as a chanteuseThe
High Priestess of Soul, was one of her labelsSimone never
truly got over that first rejection. The resentment burned deep inside
her, erupting with a ferocity during the Civil Rights era when she became
a Black Power leader and sang such militant anthems as Mississippi
Goddamn and To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
came at great personal cost, as the film shows. Her husband and manager,
an ex-New York detective named Andy Stroud, was a politically-conservative
African-American who wanted her to play it safe, stick to pop music, where
the money was. When Simone refused to compromise her principles, Stroud
became abusive, beating her so often and so brutally that she eventually
ended up in hospital.
Life wounded Simone in many other ways, especially when heroes and friends
like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were murdered,
along with their visions of a more just, equitable society. The distraught
and disillusioned Simone had a nervous breakdown, the result of which
was a decision on her part to abandon the USA.
Taking her young daughter-who later became one of the producers
and key talking-heads of the Netflix documentary-- Simone emigrated to
Liberia, where she spent seven happy years, only to inexplicably pull
up those African roots and settle in France. She sang and recorded sporadically
during those years of exile, but plagued by mental illness (she was bi-polar
and depressive), she became more and more reclusive. She died alone in
Dont think, though, that WHAT HAPPENED MISS SIMONE? is all sturm
and drang. Theres a lot of bubbly, joyous footage of Simone in her
prime, when she was hailed for her fiercely individual and heart-stopping
renditions of such songs as I Loves You Porgy and My
Baby Just Cares For Me. The documentary also sheds new light on
the singer via little-known audio tapes, home movies and back-stage footage,
plus interviews with the likes of Stanley Crouch, George Wein-and
even the wife-beating Andy Stroud.
This deeply probing, scrupulously honest, well-made film pays worthy tribute
to the jazz titan known as Nina Simone.