I’m ashamed to admit that I knew almost nothing about the legendary Nina Simone beyond the barest outlines of the legend: amazing singer, right? This powerful and intimate documentary has begun to rectify my ignorance. Using recently discovered audio recordings of interviews that Simone gave over many years — as well as new interviews with her family and friends, including her daughter, actress and singer Lisa Simone Kelly — veteran documentarian Liz Garbus crafts as deeply personal and as fresh a portrait as is possible when its subject has been dead for more than a decade (Simone died in 2003, aged 70).
A woman who was “full of anger and rage,” as Kelly describes her, Simone dreamed as a child of being a classical pianist, but that simply wasn’t an option open to poor little black girls in the American South in the 1940s. Instead, she used her comparatively minimal classical education to bring a sort of discipline to jazz, as a TV commentator says of her later work. Simone’s narration, from those recordings and out of a past that in many ways doesn’t sound so very different from today, is heartbreaking as she describes feeling “isolated” from both the “negro” and the white communities, and proud and furious as she talks about how she was destined for music nevertheless: she “couldn’t help it. I had to play and I needed money… I never thought about a choice.” We desperately need to hear more women saying things like this, about being driven in an inexorable way toward a passion.
Some of the archival footage Garbus found — a clip from the 1950s Playboy’s Playhouse, in which a Simone performance is introduced by a very young Hugh Hefner! — is absolutely astonishing: listening to her sing “Mississippi Goddam,” her angry anthem against segregation, civil-right abuses, and the murder of black Americans, raised the hair on the back of my neck. The question of what drove Simone from the U.S. in the wake of what she saw as the failure of the civil-rights movement — the title of the film refers to a Maya Angelou poem — isn’t much of a mystery after all: she despaired of progress. (Simone eventually ended up living out her final years in France.) Garbus mines the deep complexity of Simone’s life — from her struggles with mental illness and cycles of abuse to her restless search for self, calm, and peace — to show us a woman who was deeply troubled but also uncompromising in spirit and conviction. “Was Nina Simone allowed to be exactly who she was?” we are asked to wonder. What is clear is that, at a minimum, she made a unique path for herself when the one she wanted was denied her.