What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

If one is not permitted to express anger or even to recognize it within oneself, one is, by simple extension, refused both power and control. (Carolyn Heilbrun, 1989)

It feels like the right time for a biographical portrait of Nina Simone, virtuoso pianist, singer and activist.  Civil rights, seemingly off the agenda for so long, have been tragically thrust back into consciousness through a series of events scarcely believable in their frequency (and in the fervour to excuse them outside of racial contexts).  It seems to me that the #blacklivesmatter movement could use a figurehead as creative, outspoken and openly angry as Simone was, and a protest song with the rage (and catchiness) of ‘Mississippi Goddamn’.

What a shame, then, that What Happened, Miss Simone’s portrait of this musical giant seeks to explain away her righteous fury by using a diagnosis of bipolar disorder to excuse her erratic, sometimes violent behaviour, and, to some extent, to account for her genius.  I find myself repeating my frustration with this cliche over and over again in relation to the biopic: mental illness is not the cause of genius.  It is also not pathological to be angry about a lifetime of discrimination, oppression and disappointment. The intersection of Simone’s race and gender do complicate this issue further, and make the representation in the film more troublesome still.  Indiewire’s Tanya Steele put it better than I could when she says:

I am all for addressing mental illness as it relates to Black women. What I am not here for is ascribing it to her creative dexterity. Nina Simone was a child prodigy. Yes, mental illness is part of her legacy, but there is another aspect to her, her process, her heart, her insight.

As with Amyanother recent jazz-related documentary, the lack of attempt to understand the creativity of the figure here is a major blockage for me. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, she wanted to be the first great black classical pianist – an unlikely dream, perhaps, for a dark-skinned, poor girl from North Carolina.  But her innate talent matched with gruelling years of practice took her to a Juilliard scholarship. Rejection from the Curtis Institute, which, she later found out was racially motivated, signalled the end of her dream of a professional career. She took up singing and playing in clubs in Atlantic City to make ends meet.  This was the birth of a truly unique artist, who melded classical, soul, spirituals, jazz, blues and rock music with her distinctive contralto voice. But that racist rejection from the classical music community was to haunt Simone’s musical career: she told her mother in 1963 that, although she was playing the prestigious Carnegie Hall, she’d have rather been playing Bach.

The film tells this story simply – through voice-overs (though with an oddly limited roster of participants), archive images and, most enticingly, long passages of performance footage which go some way to capturing Simone’s hypnotic charisma and passion as a performer.  The film also begins with an intriguing premise, provided by her daughter, who said that people are wrong to presume that Simone assumes a character on stage, when in fact her mother was ‘Nina Simone’ 24/7.  While the film does a fairly good job of expressing the intensity with which Simone lived her life, matching her performance, it falls short of truly considering the implications of this.

The documentary was made in collaboration with Simone’s estate, which would usually be cause for alarm, but it’s refreshingly forthcoming about Simone’s flaws.  This had the positive effect of providing the filmmakers access to Simone’s diary, allowing glimpses of her private thoughts and interpretations of events. She writes frankly about her troubled relationship with her abusive husband (who, troublingly, is interviewed for the film), at one point even stating plainly “I hate him”.  Similarly, the use of archive interview material is often revealing  She noted in the early 1990s, for example, her own disappointment at the decline of the civil rights movement: “there are no civil rights any more. Everybody’s gone”.

Reviewers have tended to be positive about the film.  I wonder how much that has to do with the residual awe collectively felt for the woman, since the film itself is a perfectly functional documentary, but structurally not much more. It feels most like an earnest attempt to provide an often too literal answer to the question posed by its own title.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is on Netflix now.

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