Like Nat King Cole, Nina Simone didn’t want to sing. Her ambition was to become a concert pianist, while Cole wanted to be a jazz pianist. Need forced both of them to become songbirds. Cole was a smooth singer of love songs. Simone made the charts with Little Liza Jane. But this little Liza was a lot more than a jazzy folk singer with classical training, and she could not lose herself in commercial success. They wanted more Little Liza Jane and she gave them Mississippi Goddamn. And that severely limited her options for success. She soon became a full force power in the black militant uprising, eventually moving to Africa and later Europe. No matter how much people today love her music, they can never know the pride and the heartbreak of her life, the genius that freed her soul, or the madness that broke her mind. Liz Garbus’ new documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” opens the doors on the many sides of Nina Simone that are sometimes left out of the reductionist bios.
I saw Miss Simone in concert in July 2001, just two years before her death. Fifty minutes into the concert, she stopped singing, walked downstage, and hit an usher over the head with what appeared to be a feathered wand. Two well-dressed gentlemen led her off the stage, where she remained for about fifteen minutes, while the band jammed, seemingly at a loss as to what was going to happen next. Fortunately, Simone returned to the stage and concluded the program. I was working at the downtown Seattle Borders at the time, and the next day, two members of her band stopped in. I asked them about the event, and was told such interruptions were common occurrence. This particular event was set off because the usher was standing in front of the stage with his back to her, and she thought he was a rude audience member disrespecting her. According to the film, such paranoid outbursts had been common throughout her career.
Simone claims that everybody active in the black power movement was mentally destroyed by those years of struggle. Now, fifty years later, racism in the United States is as deadly as ever. During the civil rights era, it was the black leaders who were targeted. Today it is the average person in the street who is at risk. What is the cause? Is it the fear of a black president? Under capitalism, the social reaction to change often has the opposite of its intended effect. For example, the legalization of gay marriage may well lead to the absorption of the the gay minority into the general population, diminishing their unique culture and rendering them invisible. By the same token, the banning of the confederate flag, while suppressing the historical memory of Southern insurrection, could well give rise to an increase in truly dangerous individuals who secretly empower their psychotic fantasies with forbidden symbols and emblems.
“What Happened, Miss Simone” is one of the most important films of the year, especially for young people who know the history of US racism only through such sentimentalized movies as “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave.” Director Garbus shows us the struggle of one individual to keep her music, her politics, and her mind in one piece while a racist system tears her apart. Nina Simone was a tough force to deal with. The world loved her talent, was mesmerized by her genius, but neither her husband nor her daughter could endure her, because her life was not a performance. It was reality, 24 hours a day. If you want to know what it meant, and still means, to be young, gifted, and black, you can read or see Lorraine Hansberry’s play, or you can listen, really listen, to Nina Simone’s music. And Liz Garbus’ insightful documentary is an indispensable primer on what it’s all about.