WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (2015) is a love letter to all Nina Simone accomplished and all she wanted to be and all she had to leave to the side. It also lifts the veil of idolatry that so many mythic entertainers live under. For viewers who know Nina Simone as the High Priestess of Soul, her lifelong desire to play Bach and be known as a classical pianist will be a surprise. For those who know her as a civil rights activist, her time being abused and being abusive will come as a shock. But what the documentary shares is that Nina Simone — Eunice Waymon — was a deeply talented woman with passions and disappointments and aspirations that she managed to massage into popular culture and activism. What Happened, Miss Simone is a love letter to the whole of Nina Simone, not a romantic vision of her legendary status.
With archival footage of Simone’s performances and interviews interspersed with interviews from her daughter, husband, bandmates, and friends, the documentary gives a well-rounded view of the legend that includes making her seem at once towering and all too human. Throughout it all, the documentary feels in awe of Nina Simone and sometimes minimizes her faults by wrapping them in explanations of the hardships, both personal and institutional, that Simone endured. Unfortunately, this awe mutes Simone’s struggles with mental health and some of her more violent outbursts, even those that caused injury to others. This disservice to Simone’s full story casts a fuzzy lens over the entire documentary, which is the opposite of how she lived.
Despite this, the visual use of Simone’s journal entries creates an effective contrast to various pieces of the documentary. When Andrew Stroud (Simone’s husband and manager) talks casually about their relationship, lines from Simone’s journal that detail the beatings and her conflicted response to them are displayed on the screen. When Simone’s friends discuss her declining mental health, more journal entries appear showing erratic handwriting and jittery, confused language. Seeing what Simone’s thoughts were helps the audience decide how deeply they want to consider the information shared in the interviews. For example, Stroud’s attitude becomes callous when we realize he doesn’t take ownership of his abuse towards Simone. And what could seem like manipulation for profit when Simone’s healthy declines, seems to be concern borne out of friendship when we see the uneven thoughts straight from her journal.
The civil rights work Simone took an active part in, and that she left for Europe and Liberia out of frustration, is detailed in photographs as well as through interviews. However, there are also less direct methods used. The closeness of Nina Simone to Lorraine Hansberry, the Shabazz family, and others like Stokely Carmichael is also highlighted. The footage of her performances in honor of Lorraine Hansberry and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after their deaths are especially affecting. The performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is heart wrenching, and Simone’s rendition of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” written and performed just days after the MLK assassination is powerful commentary, especially considering the documentary had shared earlier that Simone didn’t believe non-violence had any place in ensuring civil rights for Black Americans.
It feels strange to admit to enjoying What Happened, Miss Simone? because of the frustration and deep sadness wrapped up in her genius throughout her life. It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. However, it is extremely satisfying – and entertaining – to watch Nina Simone perform and share unabashed opinions and to hear those close to her share memories. Lisa, Nina Simone’s daughter with Andrew Stroud, gives at once poignant and vague commentary. Her comments about her mother’s abusive behavior in Liberia contrast with her sadness about both her parents’ penchant for violence. Also, her sometimes seeming detachment from her mother is softened by concern about how the drugs for Simone’s bipolar disease affected her mental and physical acuity. So, it feels somehow wrong and strange to have enjoyed the film, but it’s difficult not to be drawn in to Nina Simone’s passion and verve, despite the complications and pain with which they are paired.
What Happened, Miss Simone? can easily be used in group or education venues whether it’s for Black history, women’s history, music, or mental health. Whether as a whole or in segments, Nina Simone’s life and personality easily lends itself to discussions about all of those topics. For prejudice reduction in particular, Simone’s assertion that she was punished for her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam,” and was blocked from record deals and gigs because of it, sets up discussion of whether tangible racial prejudice or the perception of it is more powerful, more damaging. And if it matters in the end.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is available on Netflix, and for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime and Apple/iTunes.