Whatever Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbuz Docu of Legendary Singer and Political Actvist

Nina, the biopic that Cynthia Mort wrote and directed, is a terrible movie in every sense of the term: simplistic instead of complex, full of clichés instead if being grounded in reality, trivial instead of being significant.

It just happened that last year, the respectable documentarian, Lis Garbus, has made a documentary about the subject, titled What Happened, Miss Simone?

Born Eunice Waymon, the passionate performer and activist Nina Simone died in 2003, at age 70. Today, her music and recordings loom larger than her life story.

In the docu What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus digs deep into her subject’s complex and tumultuous life.

discussed the film with NPR correspondent Michele Norris.

Michele Norris: Knowledge about Nina Simone at the start of this project?

Liz Garbus: I knew the music, I didn’t know the woman.  Here’s a young girl who grows up in the church … her mother is both a housekeeper and a minister. People quickly realize that this is a young girl with extraordinary musical talent. The town comes together, black and white — and this is the Jim Crow South, this is North Carolina — and raises a fund for her to study classical music.

She studies with an immigrant named Muriel Mazzanovich, and young Nina, whose name is actually Eunice Waymon, falls in love with Bach. I didn’t know that Nina was a classically trained pianist who had gone to Juilliard. When you start to understand that part of her upbringing and her training, you start to be able to deconstruct, as you listen, the way that she infuses a jazz standard with classical counterpoint and blues and soul. Her musical talent and training is evident in every bar.

She talked about herself sort of as existing in between the white and the black keys of the piano, and that’s how she grew up: this child-prodigy treasure, living on the other side of the tracks, and of course facing racism when she performed. When she was 12 years old, at a classical recital, her parents were asked to sit in the back of the room. Nina refused to play if they were in the back of the room. She was always living in opposition — sometimes dangerous opposition.

Why did she change her name?

Nina’s at Juilliard, and the money the townsfolk had collected for her has run out. She applies to Curtis Institute of Music, where, if she was accepted, tuition would be paid for by the institute itself. She’s rejected from Curtis, and she ends up starting to play in the bars of Atlantic City in order to support herself. Her whole family had moved north to be around her while she was studying, and she was ashamed that she was playing in bars. She had come up in a very religious family, playing church music and classical music, and here she was in the bars and nightclubs where people were drinking, and she was providing entertainment. She changed her name to avoid being on her mother’s radar.

Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, looking back on her childhood.

Difficult woman?

Lisa had spent a long time trying to set the record straight about her mom, and that’s a very hard task, because the record about her mom isn’t straight. Her mom had a life with many rough edges. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have nice things to say about Nina Simone. She occupies that space that people call “a difficult woman.” That’s a term laden with a lot of sexism, as many male performers could get away with some of the stuff that Nina would pull.

Nina did suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness for most of her 20s and 30s. So this was Lisa’s mother: a woman who was in an abusive marriage, who could be abusive herself, who was in turmoil about her career, though totally dedicated to it. Setting that record straight for Lisa is no easy task, and Lisa feels now that her mother’s story has been told and that she doesn’t have to correct the record.

Nina Simone as political activist

I don’t think it’s understood how different Nina was from some of the entertainers of the time. There are many great contemporaries of Nina — Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin — who were able to participate in the movement and nurture the commercial side of their career, and Nina really wasn’t able to do that.

Protest Song: Mississippi Goddam

In 1963, after the Birmingham church bombing, that’s when Nina first became involved with the movement. That’s when she sat down and in 20 minutes wrote one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Movement, “Mississippi Goddam,” where she let her anger and rage and sadness pour out of her.

As her career progressed, she wrote some of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Backlash Blues.” She surrounded herself with a community of intellectuals and radicals like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Miriam Makeba. She was radicalized.

In an interview with Nina in the early 1990s by Ebony magazine, they say, “Do you regret having been involved with the Civil Rights Movement?” — because she was saying that the industry punished her for her involvement. And she says, well, she’d probably do the whole thing over again, but that she does regret it because her music has no relevance anymore. And we can see today that she was wrong, her music is so relevant.