There is a patina of sorrow over this documentary that I was aware of from the very first scene.
Nina Simone, one of the greatest jazz singers, entertainers, and concert pianists ever, felt isolated by and from both the black and the white community though she was admired and idolized by both. And how could they (we) not? She truly was a grand dame of jazz, with a depth and darkness to her voice that touched all who listened. The film is not short of people willing to praise her talents, but we get a true sense of her personality when she is profuse in her own praise of other artists as well. Ever humble, she is generous to other musicians and quiet about her own accomplishments though thankful to those who helped her along the way.
The greatest treat in this documentary is undoubtedly the vintage footage of Miss Simone performing. It gives you a real sense of how timeless her sound was, how her incredibly rich voice can still reach across the years and fill your heart like velvet. Oh man.
Simone was also a “patron saint of the rebellion”- a woman who reflected the times she lived in, proudly. She was tired of the establishment in more way than one and did her part to expose its hypocrisies, even if it was at the expense of her white audience. She wasn’t afraid to align herself with militants and defined herself as “not nonviolent” even though MLK was a friend of hers; thankfully she had music at her disposal and not guns. When she started playing exclusively political songs, it affected her career. But she believed it was part of the artist’s role to preach what they believed, to have their art contain a message, and hers certainly did, notably with Mississippi Goddamn, a song written in response to and expressing sorrow and anger over the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the Baptist church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls.
Simone lived in an era where society didn’t appreciate a woman’s genius, let alone a black woman’s. What did it do to her? She struggled with depression and appeared to already be in a downward spiral when Dr. King was assassinated. But when a battle with bipolar threatens – will she be willing to take medication that could rob her of her music?
Simone has been dead for a decade but never ever forgotten. This documentary helps to shed some light on a strong, interesting, multi-faceted woman. It’s nominated for an Oscar this year in a category that feels fairly locked up by Amy, an inferior offering. But the good news is, you can see them both on Netflix right now, and decide for yourself.