Academy Award-nominated director Liz Garbus directs the Netflix documentary, which provides a complicated answer to the title question.
Sometimes it takes an artist's passing for us to fully appreciate their gifts -- especially if the artist in question challenged her contemporaries with a radical message.
Such is the case with Nina Simone, an uncompromising presence during her lifetime whose success -- though considerable -- never quite reflected the true extent of her brilliance.
Simone's artistry and her wounded psyche are the subject of the compelling new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? from filmmaker Liz Garbus, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her 1998 film The Farm: Angola, USA. It premiered to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
She had a reputation that frightened some people. She was occupying a space that hadn’t been occupied before as an African-American woman calling out white America.
Garbus worked in cooperation with Simone's estate and the late singer's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, drawing from audio of never-before-heard interviews, searingly-intimate diaries and rare concert footage. More controversially, Garbus includes excerpts from vintage interviews with Simone's second husband, the late Andy Stroud, whom Simone accused of beating and raping her.
The film is now streaming on Netflix, having already qualified for consideration for next year's Oscars. Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Garbus about the Nina Simone she discovered, the singer's trials and tribulations, and her Civil Rights-era activism.
Nonfictionfilm: What did you know about Nina Simone before you embarked on the film?
Liz Garbus: I knew what maybe most people know -- that I loved her music. I was a fan. I knew she was a Civil Rights icon. I knew she played some really nice tunes that would be great [to listen to] when you have friends come over. But I didn't know anything about the story of this woman, of her background or her classical training, of her struggles with mental illness, of her family's struggles. I didn't know the first thing about the human being.
NFF: Based on your previous work you were approached about directing the film.
LG: Her daughter and the estate of Nina Simone came together with a company called Radical Media in New York who's done a lot of music programming. They were looking for a director to make a film about Nina Simone. I think since Nina's death [in 2003] -- and even when Nina was alive -- there had been many false starts on documentaries and I think that for various reasons they [the estate and her daughter] were kind of ready to let go and trust someone to tell the story in a way that hadn't been done before. And so I was the lucky recipient of that trust.
NFF: For someone who is widely regarded as a great talent, a great singer, is Nina Simone still under-appreciated?
LG: Yes, she's still under-appreciated.
NFF: That seems paradoxical.
LG: Yeah. She’s one of the most extraordinary artists of the 20th century. You’ve got other artists acknowledging her as such -- from Bob Dylan to Alicia Keys and Beyonce -- the greatest artists today acknowledging her as one of their main influences or one of their great inspirations. Yet today she’s not extremely well-known in the US. And certainly I think the genius of her music is not well understood.
I think she had a reputation that frightened some people. She was occupying a space that hadn’t been occupied before as an African-American woman kind of calling out white America on the stage and performing and not just kind of making everything nice for people. She was doing something that was very threatening... She was doing something really quite brilliant but, yeah, to me she belongs in the canon with Miles Davis, James Brown and Bob Dylan.
LG: I think when she started meeting the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and became inspired, that kind of repurposed her. It gave her a sense of, “Okay, maybe this was all for something and that my music can have an impact in a way that really does matter to me.” So I think that saved her in some way. But of course it also burned her out.
NFF: So many great African-American artists were kind of chewed up and spit out in one way or another. I think of Paul Robeson, for instance -- such a challenging figure to the establishment. And I have that feeling about Nina Simone.
LG: Oh absolutely.
NFF: Is there a way to sum up how the racism of the culture affected her?
LG: It’s so interesting because, again, her childhood was charmed in some way. She had this extraordinary support of her community, the black and white community, but it also isolated her. So it put her in this kind of box and I think as a child not having all these kind of socializing experiences -- even though in the Jim Crow South it also would have been very rough -- it kind of created a very specific and strange kind of childhood for her. And then of course the box of being the entertainer, performing, making things nice and not challenging anybody was a box offered to her at the beginning of her career. But she really burst out of all those boxes. And becoming involved with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Stokely Carmichael and the Shabazz family, she burst out of even the “nice kind of Civil Rights singer,” right, where she really became very radicalized.
NFF: One of the remarkable things we learn in the film is that she really had no intention of becoming a singer.
LG: Nina was a classically trained pianist. She was a prodigy, playing since the time she was six. She grew up in the Jim Crow South yet the white community in her town [Tryon, North Carolina] supported her musical education, sent her to New York to Juilliard... [Editor's note: the film says Simone's further musical education was blunted when Curtis Insitute in Philadelphia refused her admission because of her race].
When the money had run out for her musical education she had to start playing in bars. And if you’re going to play in bars you’re going to make more money if you sing and this is how Nina Simone started singing.
It was both a great joy for her -- I think she knew on stage how good she was -- but it was also this terrible cross to bear because it wasn’t how she envisioned her career... Her dream [of being a concert pianist] was thwarted. Singing for clubs is a different kind of entertainment and it was not what she thought she was out for.
She was so raw and so direct and so honest.
NFF: Looking back, do you have a sense of when the first signs of nascent mental illness first emerged? Her condition didn’t seem to be understood until much later in her life.
LG: In today’s world it would have been understood much more quickly. You could be an armchair psychologist and see that she was suffering from both episodes of mania and depression... I think if you look at the demands placed on her and you look at the family life -- the domestic violence within her own family -- and the demands of the Civil Rights Movement and of life on the road and if she had a predisposition towards these issues that certainly was going to kick it up, you know.
NFF: I was really moved by what her daughter, Lisa, had to say about her mother. I want to see a documentary about her!
LG: That’s a whole other movie, right?
NFF: She suffered physical and mental abuse from her mother. Yet there was something so poignant and forgiving about her.
LG: I’m really impressed with Lisa. I mean she was able to talk with an honesty about a parent that I don’t know that I could bring to the table with my own parents -- that kind of love and reverence but also honesty about the craggy facets of their personalities. And also that she put her mother’s story in my hands and allowed me to kind of find Nina on my own. She didn’t dictate anything. She didn’t want to control anything. She gave me total creative freedom and was as honest with me as anybody could be. I think she’s come to a place in her life where she’s worked on a lot of stuff and we were the beneficiaries of that work.
NFF: The film is very timely. I could imagine Nina writing a song like "Mississippi Goddam" about Charleston or Ferguson.
LG: We were in the edit room when the riots in the streets of Ferguson were happening. And of course the images from Ferguson looked like the images we were cutting in the film from the Civil Rights movement. And I think Nina’s is a voice that we need today. I think there’s a moment now when artists are kind of calling on her legacy as a roadmap of how to be involved and how to inspire people. You know, it’s exhausting to be in a movement. And I think entertainers offer a delight or a respite from the exhaustion of that activism. And I think they have a great role [to play] to inspire and keep people carrying on. I think Nina is a wonderful icon for today's performers.
I’m probably too deep in the world, but I think that she’s having a resurgence now. She’s playing at Starbuck’s when I go there. At the Oscars John Legend and Common gave her a shoutout. I think she’s going through a resurgence and What Happened, Miss Simone? will be part of that.
NFF: You have actress Zoe Saldana playing Nina in an upcoming movie. Any thoughts about them doing a biopic about her? That’s not an easy role to play.
LG: It’s a tough role and, you know, I have no dog in that race but I feel like if it’s a film that brings more understanding and appreciation for Nina’s genius and humanity then it’s good and if it does something other than that then it’s not so great. So I guess I’ll wait to see it.
LG: There were other artists who were able to entertain and be part of the Movement but still nurture their commercial career. And Nina didn’t do that. Nina was very radical and certainly pushed barriers beyond where a lot of white audiences or TV audiences would have been comfortable. She says, “The industry punished me for my Civil Rights music.” And I think that’s true. And I think it was because she was so raw and so direct and so honest.
NFF: How would you describe that voice? For me it’s almost like a rumbling from the earth, a felt experience that is so deep.
LG: What she does with songs is she completely reinterprets them with her own pain and experience. So you think of a song like “Ain’t Got No” from Hair -- it's a song a couple of white guys sang in Hair as part of like the anti-war movement and for her it becomes, for me, like this drama of the legacy of slavery in America.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.