On June 26th Netflix released What Happened Miss Simone, a documentary about Nina Simone. Nina Simone was a jazz singer, who was a formidable voice of the American Civil Rights Movement; she also wrote and sung powerful jazz tunes, such as I Love You Porgy, Nina’s first ever hit single, which resulted in commercial success.
What Happened Miss Simone is about not only Nina’s commercial success, but also her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, her troubled relationship with her husband and child, and her struggles with mental health issues and poverty.
A powerful device, in What Happened To Miss Simone, is a reoccurring recording of a Nina Simone interview, where she tells the interviewer her life story, with a hint of raspy shakiness in her voice. The recording is a ghostly presence, whispering in the ear of the viewer; ever so often, the voice of the late Nina Simone chimes in, and provides her opinion on what really happened, while the narrator, and the interviewees, walk down Nina’s memory lane.
Over the course of her lifetime, Nina Simone performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall, to The Playboy Mansion, and lived in not only America, but also Africa and France; her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement provided her with the opportunity to get to know, on a personal level, everyone from Malcolm X, to Martin Luther King, to diverse, African American playwrights, poets, and intellectuals. As a result What Happened Miss Simone viewers get the chance to hear eclectic perspectives on who she really was, from some of the most well respected writers, activists, and intellectuals, of the Civil Rights Movement, and their children; it’s a crucial counterpoint, to her family’s perspective on her personal life, and the musicians that she performed with. The documentary’s diverse perspectives enhance the viewer’s experience, through connecting all of the puzzle pieces, which played an important role in Nina’s life, so that viewers get a multidimensional overview of her life story.
The amount of material that What Happened Miss Simone director Liz Garbus has at her disposal is immense. Not only did she managed to get interviews with an eclectic range of musicians, family, and friends that got to know Nina on a deeply personal level, while compiling Nina Simone interview and concert footage, from diverse phases of her lifetime, she also got her hands on Nina Simone’s diary. Although Nina’s handwriting isn’t all that easy to read, subtitles and a recording of the narrator reading a passage from Nina’s diary helped ensure that readers don’t have to worry about Nina’s scribbly handwriting. The diary passages prevent the documentary from drifting into bias slandering, or glamorization of its subject. Both the reoccurring recording of Nina telling her life story, and the diary passages provide the viewer, regardless of how much/ how little they already know about her, with a tremendously intimate portrait of who she really is.
The unifying prologue, and epilogue of What Happened Miss Simone are segments from an interview, where the interviewer asks her: “what is freedom to you.” After thinking through what it really means to her she replies: “freedom is when you’ve got no fear, yes that’s what it is!” What becomes immediately clear is that Nina Simone’s perspective on freedom isn’t just about finding out what freedom really is; it’s about seeking freedom, and inspiring freedom in the lives of others. What Happened Miss Simone scratches below the surface of Nina Simone’s success as a musician, into her innate desire to use her music, to break free from the shackles she carried with her, throughout her lifetime, of being a black woman, that grew up in a time of racial inequality and segregation. What Happened Miss Simone is a respectful, but brutally honest eulogy of a singer, that despite segregation, poverty, and mental health issues managed to do the one thing that made her feel free: performing music that’s a genuine reflection of what was going on in the world around her.
She’s written arts coverage on everything from TIFF to Toronto’s Taste Of Little Italy Festival.
She’s Lokafy’s Freelance interviewer, and an ongoing contributor to Digital Journal and therichest.com.