I love being on the road, seeing the world, working on sets and getting paid to do what I love, but I also miss out on a lot. I suppose I could have made time to see What Happened, Miss Simone?, the highly anticipated documentary about Nina Simone, when it landed on Netflix in late June, but I guess I was exhausted or busy or whatever.
No, really, I am a huge Simone fan. When I was 22 or so, I was walking through some weekend street fair in New York City, and an older man was blasting a mix of her music from his speakers. I was immediately enthralled and spent $15 on a double CD, which was a lot of money to a grad student with an unpaid internship. It was money well spent. I’ve acquired 10 more CDs (still have them) and Simone’s autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, since then. In my insomniac hours, I search YouTube for obscure (and grainy) footage of her performances.
I landed home from my last trip Monday night. By Tuesday night, I was nestled on my Chesterfield sofa, tuned in to my laptop, waiting for What Happened, Miss Simone?—a title taken from a line in a Redbook essay on Simone written by Maya Angelou in 1970—to load over my spotty Wi-Fi connection.
Spoiler alert! These are my top 10 thoughts on the doc (in no particular order):
1. It’s funny how people stumble into their greatness. Simone, one of the greatest singers and songwriters ever born, didn’t start singing or writing songs until some owner of a crappy bar told her she had to, to keep her job. This is how the world got the Nina Simone.
2. Watching Simone perform is riveting. She put her everything into a show. I’ve seen her perform before on YouTube videos, but this is the good stuff that’s not on the site. And trust, I’ve gone far, far down the rabbit hole. This doc is worth watching just for the performances alone. I think I caught the spirit watching this documentary.
3. Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly’s narrative of her mother is that her mom was “fighting her own demons” and she was “full or anger and rage.” Well, Simone was married to a man who beat her on a regular basis, and she worked 24-7, which means she was exhausted. She was also performing in an era when black folks were getting shot, beaten, harassed and terrorized all around her. I believe Kelly when she says her mother battled manic depression and bipolar disorder, but given all that Simone was dealing with, didn’t she have very, very valid reasons to be full of anger and rage?
4. Maybe because I’m also a creative, but most of the stuff Simone’s friends say they were shocked by doesn’t surprise or bother me. Like, the guitar player laments how they first met before a show and she didn’t speak. It’s rude, perhaps, but it’s not a sign of crazy. Is it at all possible that she was getting her head right because she was about to go onstage? That’s standard artist weirdness.
Another time, the guitarist mentions that she could be temperamental in the studio. This is right after a portion of the documentary discussing her grueling performance schedule, when she says she’s always tired and could never rest. Folks are surprised that a woman with no sleep is snappy? This same guitar player is one of the few people who knew that Simone was being beaten by her then-husband, Andrew Stroud. Simone showed up at the guitarist’s house bruised up and stayed for a couple of days. She’s not erratic just for the sake of it. There are reasons.
5. Simone’s daughter is clearly a daddy’s girl, and she obviously resents her mother for abandoning the family when her parents separated (after years of domestic abuse) and for whatever happened while she and Simone were living in Liberia, when Simone was sliding down into mental illness. Kelly has a valid reason for her mama issues. But her take on her mom as a domestic violence survivor—“I think they were both nuts. She had this love affair with fire”—is reckless. To imply that your mom had a hand in her own abuse is pretty crappy. If you grew up watching your parents pummel each other and you’ve never sought help for that, you’re probably a little screwy when it comes to the dynamics of relationships. But still, crappy.
6. If you ever consider going into any kind of show business, never make your partner your manager. Those stories never end well. Stroud, a former cop, became her manager after they were married. In that capacity, Stroud seemed more focused on the business of Nina Simone than on the actual person. He recounts a (horrifying) story of finding her backstage sounding disoriented and putting shoe polish in her hair. He thought she was having a nervous breakdown. So what does he do? He cleans her up and walks her to the stage. He says this as if it were the totally rational response to the incident.
Just in general, her ex-husband (they were divorced in the early ’70s) bothers me. There’s the abuse, of course, but the way he seems so clueless as to the effect his abuse had on Simone is disturbing. At another point in the film, Stroud talks about going to bed happy and then waking up in the middle of the night to Simone staring down at him in anger. This is supposed to be an example of how crazy she’s becoming. But is this not a completely normal reaction for a woman who’s being abused? Maybe she’s angry at you all the time because you beat on her all the time. Hello?
7. You know how people always talk about being in the right circles? There’s clearly something to that. Clearly. It’s no accident that all of these world-changing people nurtured and loved on one another. I cackled when Simone’s daughter said the family lived next door to Malcolm X and was close friends with Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and Betty Shabazz.
8. I can’t believe Nina Simone smoked. The number of singers with amazing voices—once-in-a-lifetime voices—who smoke amazes me. (Whitney Houston was another one.) I’m more appalled by her smoking than I am about her stance in favor of responding with violence to white people who attack black people.
9. The film depicts Simone’s time in Liberia as her “running off.” I find that whenever black people move to the continent of Africa, others, even black people, take that as a sign that someone has really lost it. There’s still—and certainly, in Simone’s time, there was—the idea that Africa is the worst place on earth, and you must be crazy to go there. The time in Liberia is supposed to be when Simone took her downward slide, which is evidenced in the film by the way she gets so riled up when she speaks of a lightning storm that’s truly electrifying.
Um, I’ve been to Africa—south, east and north. The storms are different and more intense. Lightning during a day-to-day storm in South Africa is like something from a sci-fi movie. And don’t find yourself anywhere with a view when it happens. It will absolutely make an entirely sane person stop and stare in awe. The rumble of thunder is the same as in New Orleans, though. Go figure.
10. The film spends a good deal of time wondering whether Simone went too far in speaking up for civil rights, or even whether there was something wrong with turning over her entire musical set to political songs when she performed. Stroud thought that his ex-wife’s political songs, such as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which were part of the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, were evidence that Simone was getting “sidetracked.”
Considering the times—schoolchildren being bombed at church; civil rights leaders being assassinated; people getting hosed, beaten and killed—addressing other things in the face of all that would have been frivolous, really. Stroud also criticizes his ex-wife’s interest in the Black Panthers as her “putting down white people.”
I’m not bothered that she didn’t take a nonviolent stance—especially when you consider that the white people who were attacking black people weren’t taking that position, even after years of black people turning the other cheek. The documentary makes it sound as if Simone was way far out. Um … was she? No.
What did you think of What Happened, Miss Simone?
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.