Upon introducing herself to Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone didn’t begin by telling him who she was, but rather who she wasn’t. “I’m not non-violent,” a stone-faced Simone said to America’s paragon of passive resistance. King smiled politely and told the esteemed jazz singer and pianist—one black civil-rights icon to another—that she was entitled to her position. So goes the story according to What Happened, Miss Simone?, director Liz Garbus’ visceral documentary set at the blind intersection between Simone’s prodigious musical talents and her polarizing political views. It’s among many stories in the film that sum Simone up as a complex, contradictory artist whose essence remains just out of reach, no matter how conventionally Garbus presents her.
What Happened opens in 1976 with Simone’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, a brittle, brutal hour-long set that’s indelible for all the right reasons—and all the wrong ones. Simone takes the stage looking weary and resigned, a harbinger of her prickly stage demeanor. She pauses between songs to banter with the audience, flitting in and out of coherence so rapidly, her prestissimo piano solos seem sluggish by comparison. She snaps at the audience when they don’t applaud enough and accosts a woman for having the temerity to get out of her seat. But the music is no worse for the wear, a classic example of a stage performance that is both energized and enervated by the performer’s emotional turmoil. Simone had grown to hate her life’s work, and Garbus flashes back to Simone’s early years to examine the path that led to her professional nadir.
Simone, born Eunice Waymon in small-town North Carolina, began playing piano at 4 years old and proved such a virtuosic talent, her parents and instructors began grooming her to become the country’s first black concert pianist. Once Simone had that goal in mind, it wasn’t unusual for her to spend up to eight hours a day playing the classical greats. She was dealt an early blow at age 17 when she was declined admission to Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute Of Music, despite a promising audition she was certain would have landed her a spot at Curtis were she not a black woman.
It turned out to be Simone’s pivotal failure. She wound up playing gigs in Atlantic City without which she wouldn’t have discovered her hearty, stirring voice or adopted her stage name, a combination of one childhood nickname and another borrowed from French actress Simone Signoret. Five years later, her plaintive rendition of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” would become her first charting single.
Simone’s meteoric rise to fame and flattery wasn’t enough to vanquish the pain of the Curtis rejection, a racist slight she was constantly reminded of daily as a consequence of living in her skin in America in the 1960s. She wasn’t willing to settle for individual success while there were black children—perhaps one of the country’s next great concert pianists among them—being blasted with fire hoses in Birmingham. Simone channeled her anger over racial injustice into some of her finest music, including “Young, Gifted, And Black” and most notably, “Mississippi Goddam,” her fiery rebuke following the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that left four girls, ages 11 to 14, dead.
Garbus, the Academy Award-nominated director of The Farm: Angola, USA, deftly constructs Simone’s story using primary interviews and a bounty of gorgeous performance footage and intimate personal diaries furnished by Simone’s estate. What Happened can be frustrating in its adherence to music-biography conventions, but Garbus also makes the bold choice of framing Simone’s rage at the mistreatment of black people as a virtue. By framing the journey as the run-up to the Montreux set, Garbus grants herself the latitude to focus on Simone’s activism, and how her career nearly ended because she refused to play the hits while black America was taking so many lashes. What Happened portrays Simone as a woman of character and principle who had no desire to cater to the whims of her fans or conceal that she was furious about the country’s state of affairs.
Garbus arguably spends too much time radicalizing Simone without providing adequate context and nuance. The King anecdote, while charming, presents a false dichotomy. It’s a twist on the oversimplified, virtue-versus-vice civil rights narrative in which King’s usual co-star is Malcolm X. In this version of the tale, the role of the bloodthirsty race radical is played not by Malcolm X, but by Simone, who happened to live next door to Malcolm. Some of Garbus’ choices buttress the notion that black America was hopelessly polarized by the role of violence in the civil rights movement when the peaceniks and the militants were merely quibbling about tactics. But because Garbus goes so far to acquit the emotions underlying Simone’s political positions, the depiction isn’t unflattering or judgmental. In fact, it seems like the way Simone would most want to be remembered.
But What Happened is far from a hagiography. Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is remarkably lucid and composed as she describes the events she witnessed, including vicious beatings Simone received from her husband and manager Andy Stroud. Simone Kelly’s mettle only wavers once, when she describes her mother’s mood swings and vicious psychological abuse, symptoms of bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until late in Simone’s career. But Garbus’ decision to valorize Simone’s rage has a distinct halo effect, and it makes What Happened the documentary black America didn’t realize it needed.
The country is still reeling from the unconscionable massacre of nine black church parishioners by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, an act of terror that closely echoes the inspiration for “Mississippi Goddam” and took place roughly 250 miles from Simone’s birthplace. It’s in these moments when black Americans are refused validation of any reaction that isn’t informed by mercy and compassion for the offender. There’s never been a more perfect moment to conjure the spirit of Simone, a woman in a perpetual state of righteous fury who didn’t give a good goddamn what anyone thought of it.
Premieres: The film will be available for streaming through Netflix on June 26.