The portrait of a tortured, enigmatic, brilliant artist, Nina Simone, whose upbringing and isolation during the Jim Crow-era created a simmering inner-rage culminating during the civil-rights movement and destroyed her once-promising career is the focus of the fascinating documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone.
Beginning with a quote from the late Maya Angelou, the story explores the humble upbringing of the woman known as of “The High Priestess of Soul” born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. The daughter of a preacher, she proved to be a musical prodigy, playing the piano at the age of three in her mother’s church.
With dreams of being the first Black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, she endured piano lessons that lasted eight hours a day, while learning to play all of the masters. Although her talent gave her special privileges, she discovered that she didn’t fit in with the Whites nor did she feel comfortable with her peers, they didn’t want Nina for a friend but only to entertain them.
Director Liz Garber does a wonderful job of incorporating Simone’s voice and songs to weave a complex cinematic tapestry that shows Simone’s journey from bar singer to one of the most respected performers of her time.
Her life reaches it professional peak im the early 1960s. She marries her dream beau (which later turns into her personal nightmare) and finds her voice during the dawn of the civil-rights movement with such incindiery songs such as Mississippi Goddam.
She is also embraced by the movement befriending both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X along with other leading intellectuals of the time including Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
As the movement intensifies, Simone is caught in a tug-of-war between the the more radical elements of the movement and her recording career, which takes a major hit due to her politics.
Garber’s challenge is the third act where Simone’s life begins to unravel as both her marriage and career begin to fall apart. She moves to Liberia and attempts to leave the business behind. The story segues from triumphant and inspirational to melancholy as her health and amazing abilities begin to wane.
With an upcoming major studio biopic about her life set to hit theaters in the near future, it will be interesting to see if Zoe Saldana can successfully channel her undeniable innocence with her prodigious talent.
“She was never in conflict with the world, the world was in conflict with her,” said her goddaughter, Attalah Shabazz. This is the crux of the story of an amazing artist who lived her life on her own terms but couldn’t turn a blind eye to the ugliness of the world around her. A very moving story of a troubled woman whose dedication to the movement cost her more than we’ll know!!!