I adore Nina Simone, I have done so since I heard I Put a Spell on You. I remember going on the first of my Nina binges, soothing my soul with her sound, her voice, and her words.
When Netflix released What Happened, Miss Simone? , I of course had to see it. I finally watched it and it tugged at every one of my heartstrings, nearly tore me to pieces. I was aware that Ms. Simone had some problems, I knew she was bipolar. But I had no idea of just how unhappy and miserable her life was.
The documentary starts out with a clip of Nina at a concert. Though the audience is pleased to see her, clapping and whooping, Nina seems to be out of it. She pauses dramatically and stares into nothingness. The audience cautiously applauds once more, unsure of what is going on. I could feel the audience’s nervousness and I watched nervously as well, wondering what was going to happen. Eventually her voice comes through the mic: “Hello”, to which an audience member replies “Hi, we are ready!” She laughs and I laugh too.
We are then taken back to the beginning, to Tyron North Carolina, where little Eunice Waymon dreamt of becoming America’s first black classical pianist. Nina herself tells her story; through interviews and excerpts from her diary. Her daughter Lisa, ex husband Andy, and friends also shed light on her life.
Nina tells us how she had little intention of becoming a jazz or blues singer or of being in showbiz at all; all she wanted was to become America’s first black classical pianist. After getting rejected from a music school because of her colour, she had to start playing in bars, and Eunice became Nina.
Nina found unexpected success with her song I love you Porgy and that set off her career. She met her husband, had a daughter and life was great, until it wasn’t. Her husband who retired from the police force to manage her worked her too hard, and she began to resent him for that. He was also a bully and an abuser.
The documentary details Nina’s participation in the Civil rights movement, and in doing so shows us a bit of that era. I cannot explain how it felt to be taken back to that era, to see the suffering and the battle for respect. It was surreal to see such talented intellectual Black people together in one place; Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr, Malcolm X, and of course Martin Luther King. Dr. King’s death is covered as well, and it was just heartbreaking. Believe me when I say I was in all my feelings throughout this documentary.
Her downward spiral, and her mental health issues are touched upon in this documentary. Her journal entries were so heart-wrenching. It was sad to see just how depressed Nina was, and how little happiness she got from life. But by God, Nina was a powerful woman. There is a scene in which she talks about her joy in living in Liberia and her voice got louder and louder and it was amazing.
The last bit of this interview was included in the documentary and it got me choked up.
Liz Garbus did a great job with this documentary, and I am happy it was made.
I’ll tell you what freedom is to me; no fear. I mean, really no fear
Rest in Peace Nina Simone.