Documentaries are an intriguing genre of film that stands out from the rest in its roots in the factual as opposed to being a purely fictional medium. It’s primary objective is to discuss its chosen focus topic some sort of chronological order with the help of experts, people associated with the topic and various vox pops. The documentary genre isn’t restricted to just film: turn on the television and you’ll be inundated with mini documentary series on a variety of topics from dinosaurs to murderers. The vast majority of documentaries are beacons of information and intrigue. Unfortunately audiences come across glib & superficial 30 minute “specials” on former music video channels and apologetically biased political documentaries like Hilary’s America and they’ll realise there’s a dark side to this genre. Thankfully there are still ground breaking documentaries being made and still to come. One such example is What Happened, Miss Simone? a documentary that explores the life and career of Eunice Waymon known by her stage name: Nina Simone.
Nina Simone is one of those singers that many can name a few of her best singles such as My Baby Just Cares For Me, Feelin’ Good, and I Put A Spell On You and claim to enjoy her music yet would be completely unaware of her deep involvement in the Civil Rights movement that essentially destroyed her career in the 1960s/1970s. It’s intriguing in our more open minded, less bigotted society that we have failed to recognise Simone’s passionate song about Medgar Evans’s assassination and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing Mississippi Goddamn and Strange Fruit, an elegy for the victims of lynching. This fact seems to play into a theme that runs throughout the documentary: racism. Simone was very aware of the incredibly racist surroundings she was born into. The documentary explores this in a very frank manner with any beating around the bush being damned. Seeing Simone’s daughter explaining how radio stations refused to play Mississippi Goddamn and sent back records smashed to pieces with an appalled tone speaks volumes. The moment the late singer and pianist explains in a prior interview that her parents were forced to stand at the back of her piano recitals as a child and how she’d once refused to play until her parents were sat at the front with the mainly white audience is heartbreaking in how normal it was to her. In the hands of a less talented film maker, that topic would’ve been sensationalised to no end with some unrelated white person who disagrees with account of things in the false name of “providing balance.” Director Liz Garbus does a great job of bringing this subject to light for all to see for what it really was in context to Nina Simone’s life and career. It’s quite refreshing considering that alleged racism has caused issues with the Nina Simone biopic Nina that was not endorsed by the late singer’s estate which currently holds a 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Racism isn’t the only issue that comes up when looking at the life of Simone. She suffered with mental health issues that weren’t diagnosed until her 50s and was abused psychologically, sexually and physically by her husband/manager Andrew Stroud . She left the United States never to return to live and abused her daughter Lisa. These factors in Simone’s life would be very challenging for even good filmmakers to cover properly but Garbus covers them well in a consistantly honest way. Garbus provides a very whole and complete telling of the legend that is Nina Simone using previously unseen archive footage, reenactments and interviews with those closest to Simone throughout every phase of her life. The end result is a richly layered film entrenched in both tragedy and humour, hope and despair, life and death. It elicits a genuine sense of sadness that such a great talent is blighted by such hardship yet gratitude she ever existed at all. Garbus and her team does that without resorting to cheap tricks inferior films would resort to.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a stark but incredibly valuable documentary that shows the real Eunice Waymon as she really was rather than a glossed over and oft ignored performer of colour. She was a talented pianist, versitile singer and fierce civil rights activist rightfully referred to as a legend. It’s only right that her documentary is good enough to be one of the best films of 2016 so far.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? IS AVAILABLE NOW!