First, there were whispers about a new biographical documentary of the iconic Nina Simone. Whispers, because, like the few treasures held tight by African Americans, Simone remains an unadulterated embodiment of blackness. From the unhinged range of her vocals – chilling, spiritual, alive of their own volition, to her unwavering assault on White supremacy with song like Mississippi Goddamn, Simone said what others dared. Loudly, unapologetically, and defiantly.
Disparaging Simone, for many, was akin to spitting in the National Gallery… just not done. So the whispers continued until finally, Netflix released the biodoc with the blessings and participation of both Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly and ex-husband Andrew Stroud– despite long-held rumors of Simone suffering domestic abuse.
What Netflix presents in this troubling 91-minute examination of Simone’s life entitled “What Happened, Miss Simone” is the bout genius has with the ordinary, the routine, and the mundane. Particularly complex, the bio follows the icon’s life from 5-year-old piano virtuoso to Black revolutionary. It is a story wrapped around sadness, bitterness, and abuse, with the stage serving as Simone’s sanctuary.
Viewers are treated to rare glimpses of Simone in archival and personal video footage as she slowly unravels under the pressure of “being Nina Simone.”
It becomes evident in key scenes that even as she keeps company with famed writers James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, penning and producing classic works like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” Simone needed a rest. She wrote daily diary entries documenting her fears, anger, sleeplessness, and pain, yet she felt compelled to keep going.
Simone’s ability to codify Black pride with her own abuse eventually helped her walk away from her abuser – leaving her wedding ring on a bedside table and boarding a plane for Liberia.
“What Happened, Miss Simone,” offers an in-depth examination of the artist known as the “High Priestess of Soul.”