Friday, August 21, 2015

Nina Simone, The Original Gangsta

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) - Garbus
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I don’t like the accusatory tone of the title which comes from a quote from Maya Angelou- the full quote from her essay written in 1970 is this:

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”

It starts with Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer’s only child saying that she was being Nina Simone 24/7 and that was her downfall. I do not like the framing of the film at all. It might be an informative documentary about one of the most iconic American singers, but it concentrates too much on her decision to leave America without ever asking why.

Then the film traces her rollercoaster life with interviews, stock footage and voice recordings and her personal writings.

Simone wanted to be a first black woman classical pianist, playing Bach at Carnegie Hall. She trained at an early age in her hometown in North Carolina. After not getting into her desired school for obvious racism in Philadelphia, she moved to New York. To make ends meet and continue her classical training, she started play in bars in Atlantic City. Singing came accidentally for her (and thank god for that) but it was obvious to everyone that she was musically gifted.

She married a NY vice cop who became her manager. Later he went Ike Turner on her. She did’t have time for anything else and became depressed about her workhorse entertainer career.

Living next to Betty Shabazz in Mt. Vernon, NY, she became deeply involved with Civil Rights Movement and became close friends with who’s who in black activists and intellectuals. She finally found the purpose in her life. She was angry at what was happening to black folks and wrote fiery songs and preached violence to people on stage.

It all ended with Dr. King’s murder. She lost all hope in America and left the country, her abusive husband and her career and fame. First to Barbados, then Liberia, Switzerland and she finally ending up in France, penniless.

The film reveals that she suffered from bipolar disorder and had to be medicated to be functional while living in Europe. Her daughter remembers her mood swings and violent behaviors. I understand that they want to portray her frankly. But facts alone don’t make a great documentary. What Happened misses the subject’s significance by gazing too much into her personal life It misses the big picture of placing Nina Simone as an artist and activist in American history.

I remember distinctly reading one of the interviews in her later years that she still thought there was no hope for black folks in this country, and that she has no intention of coming back. It was1990s. By all accounts, with the police killings of last few years, things haven’t really changed much here since the civil rights of the 60s.

One great quote from the film is from Ambassador Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and a family friend, who has the best observation of Simone’s career out of all people featured, "She was not at odds with the times—the times was at odds with her.”

Move over N.W.A. Nina Simone was the original gangsta.