What Happened to the Legacy of Nina Simone?

I had been putting off watching the Academy Award-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn), and I couldn’t justify why.

Mar 9, 2016 at 12:01 am
click to enlarge 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'
'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

Recently, in the midst of driving around, my iTunes shuffle landed on the track “Down So Low” from Chocolate Genius, Inc.’s Black Yankee Rock, with its glorious reimaging of the Confederate flag in red, black and green. The downbeat lyrics kicked right in, and I found myself in a Nina Simone state of mind. If the High Priestess of Soul were still alive, writing songs and beguiling us with that creamy low-rumble of a voice, she might have arrived at the same questions as Chocolate Genius frontman Marc Anthony Thompson: “If this is it/how will I know?”

To hear him sing the line, “Once we were saints,” saddened me because it spoke, in that moment, to Miss Simone, who was indeed a saint of a performer, struggling mightily with the devil in her immense soul. She strode out on the largest stages before international audiences in concert halls and music festivals, and she shared with those listeners some of the grace that music provided her.

I had been putting off watching the Academy Award-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn), and I couldn’t justify why. Although I was too young to have experienced her music upon its initial release, as soon as I became a discriminating music seeker, I latched onto songs like “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “I Put a Spell on You,” holding on for dear life. I knew about her extensive classical training and remembered hearing, during my post-college years in Philadelphia, of her attempt to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. I assumed that everyone was aware of her role as an outspoken activist during the civil rights era.

Knowing those facts didn’t prepare me for the experience of finally sitting down to watch What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix. The film reveals itself as an expression of faith for all of the doubting Thomases, and sadly, I must count myself among the ranks. Knowing the signature details of the story is not the same thing as believing its complex and complicated truth.

Garbus performs an amazing service, in much the same way Asif Kapadia did with his Academy Award-winning documentary Amy, by allowing Simone to speak for herself, setting up interview clips where she faces uncomfortable truths about her life, in the public sphere and behind closed doors. Her own testimony, as well as that of her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, reinforces the sense that Simone was caught in a trap of sorts because she was the same person in each arena. She was the consummate musician all the time, and once she found herself in communion with the civil rights movement, she was that fiery activist through and through.

More than a decade ago, I interviewed Marc Anthony Thompson, around the release of godmusic. I asked him about the idea that songs and themes can be personal and political, as if the two were mutually exclusive, and he calmly set me straight. I might consider it a rookie mistake or an intellectual miscalculation.

Recalling that exchange now, I appreciate the dilemma that Miss Simone faced, which was compounded by the inability of mental health professionals, at the time, to assist her with the depression and bipolar symptoms that, toward the end of her life, reduced her to a grumpy caricature. Life and music occupied the same space in her, but the marriage was very much an inconvenient arrangement.

Garbus restores a great deal of faith in the Simone legacy through an honest and sometimes taxing portrayal of the woman, warts and all, but it appears that much of the effort may be lost again as a new biopic from Cynthia Mort, titled Nina, is set to be unleashed upon us in a few weeks. Much has been made of the choice to cast Zoe Saldana as Simone, which required additional (and many would argue unnecessary and troubling) efforts to change Saldana’s features and darken her skin.

Nina will likely follow the well-worn plan of offering a survey of the highs and lows that we have seen in a succession of musical biopics in recent years. In this particular case, the entire affair seems to be the question as to whether or not Simone would have agreed to a project like that (especially the casting). And to paraphrase Thompson, why are we taking her “down so low” once again?

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is currently available on Netflix.