“Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” –Maya Angelou
For someone at the age of 21, Nina Simone was a voice to me. That harsh but soothing tone, that stabbed out lyrics so powerful it stuck to your soul. She was jazzy, she was bold, she was free and she was brilliant. Songs like “I Love You Porgy,” “Four Women,” and “Strange Fruit” among others fill my head at the mere mention of her name. She was just this image… a star to fawn over. Little did I know, of the life of Nina Simone. Nina Simone the daughter, the mother, the wife… the human.
In “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Director Liz Garbus manages to present her in all of her brilliance, but also in all of her vulnerability. Through personal journals filled with Nina’s words, recorded interviews and family anecdotes, Nina Simone the human being is exposed in such an authentic way it’s almost chilling. You’ll hear the singer candidly recall her own rise to fame, her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, her struggle with mental illness, and her experiences in an abusive marriage. Each truth of her life is movingly juxtapositioned with shots of her spellbinding performances featuring her unbelievable voice and piano playing.
And before you think Nina Simone was just a singer, you get a in-depth look at her life as a civil rights activist. The movement consumed her, fueled her music, and shook up her need to say something. She was fearless as she spoke the truth in songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Fighting injustices against African-Americans became her. For a moment you became just as enraged as you saw shots of police brutality and racism of the 60s. It was even more maddening that you couldn’t help but parallel those images to the recent crimes against innocent blacks just this year.
But as Nina was such a powerhouse, she was also a fragile human being in need of true liberation and peace. In her journal entries she consistently wrote of her feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, and deadening depression. It was shocking to hear of her suffering, but also enlightening. Depression is very real for many women, and this documentary gave a subliminal “You are not alone” message. It was striking, at times uncomfortable, but it was real.
What was even more amazing was that her story fit into today’s time almost perfectly. So before you think Nina Simone is just a voice to be honored in the past, watch this documentary and she’ll slip right back into your present.