Nina Simone: "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"
If you are black, gay, a woman, a refugee or a member of any minority (who hasn’t felt discriminated against at some point in one’s life after all?), the Netflix biopic on Nina Simone directed by Liz Garbus (What happened, Miss Simone?) will work wonders for your self-esteem and confidence.
Nina Simone was a black panther in the shape of a woman. But, if you think that being a genius, an anomaly (in the words of her sensible daughter, Lisa) or even a force of nature might make it easier to feel great, loved and be able you fit in, think again.
There are similarities and parallels between the life stories of Miss Simone, Michael Jackson, and Tina Turner. Just like Michael Jackson’s father, Nina’s second husband, Andy Stroud, was also her tyrannical manager, putting business above everything else, including her mental and physical health, working her spouse and employer to exhaustion. Nina shared with Andy the same kind of dysfunctional love/hate relationship Tina had with Ike Turner, and got equally abused and beaten up.
The documentary explores many facets and sides of Nina Simone’s personality and life: it makes it clear she was a prodigious classic pianist; someone who sacrificed her exquisite musical talent for the need to earn a living, which turned her into a pop icon rather than the first world-class female black pianist she had dreamt of becoming; it shows that the she paid a dear price for her fame, working insane hours to accommodate the greed of her second husband; we also get to know she resented not spending enough time with her daughter; she did not enjoy the amount of sex and affection she thought she deserved; her very dark skin tone and pure black features (Nina was no Beyoncé or Halle Berry) made her vulnerable to ruthless discrimination, which must have been a blinding source of pain.
However, the sobering lesson the viewer derives from the film is the realization that what really damaged Nina Simone and brought her down was the impossibility for this woman to be 100% herself, no matter how hard she tried.
In an iconic moment of the movie, when she is already wholeheartedly involved as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we learn she threatened the very guru of peace and love, Martin Luther King, disclosing to him that she was not a non-violent person. She refused to let the dominating conventional forces of a white society shape and mold her. She ambitioned to shape and mold them through her art instead! How can you be an artist and not reflect your times? She wondered.
One of the things that makes this documentary a pleasure to watch is the way the director chooses to use specific songs to punctuate and mark critical moments in Nina’s life. As Nina was so honest with herself, she is able to express her innermost feelings through those songs, which speak volumes about what is going on in her mind while she lives these momentous experiences in her life. Thus, the viewer is awarded impressive interpretations of some of Simone’s hits, such as I Love You Porgy (at the beginning of her rise to the world of fame and fortune); You Put a Spell On Me (while we learn of the abusive behavior of Andy Stroud, who got to the point of putting a gun to her head); Mississipi Goddamn (played against scenes of riots and police violence, during the Civil Rights Movement protests).
After her radicalization to the more aggressive factions of the Civil Rights Movement, her music started being boycotted by radio and television. Her career went on a downward spiral and she finally understood that her dreams of a black and equalitarian state would not come true. You can’t mold a system backed up by the power of the corporate world. This is a lesson that you must learn young if you wish the kind of commercial success and fame most artists are hungry for. Either you learn to play ball or they will crush you. She was late learning the lesson.
The moment Nina accepts this as fact gets translated into one of the most moving scenes of the documentary: she plays and sings AIN’T GOT NO, I GOT LIFE (a medley of two songs from the musical Hair: see video clip below), indicating that, even if you don’t compromise, there may still be salvation, but of a very different kind: she seeks redemption by moving out of the USA to Liberia, Africa, and finds some peace there…for a while.