What Happened, Miss Simone? Captures Its Subject in Stained Glass

This award-winning documentary raises the bar for how Simone is represented in popular culture and history books. It's now on DVD with a 15-song bonus CD.

Nina Simone’s forthright “Work Song”, written by Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown, Jr., gives voice to the skid from dream-crushing poverty to rock-breaking chain gang. In the newly released 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay about racial inequality and criminal justice in the US, “Work Song” serves as incisive accompaniment to the advent of mass incarceration.

Simone’s songs are rarely utilized so fittingly. A new ad for the Apple Watch Series 2 is more typical, set inexplicably to Simone’s black gospel classic “Sinnerman”, a song that’s been used with comparable gall in a crime drama about high art theft and a documentary about sharks.

Another woeful exploitation of Simone can be seen in 2016’s Nina, a factually distorted biopic starring Zoe Saldana in skin-darkening makeup and widened nose. A 33-year-old Saldana playing a 55 to 70-year-old Simone is disorienting to watch, just as Simone’s young gay caretaker made straight and their relationship warped with romantic tensions is offensive. Film critics, Simone’s family, and fans decried the film.

Such appropriations in popular culture, combined with a slighting of Simone in historical accounts of the Civil Rights Movement, make Liz Garbus’s biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) more than just vital viewing for fans. Her Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary, now available on DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment, raises the bar for how popular culture and history represent Simone. “This is the film I’ve been practicing to make all these years,” claimed Garbus at its Sundance debut. She’d earned previous acclaim for documentaries focusing on race and criminal justice (The Farm: Angola, USA; The Execution of Wanda Jean; Girlhood), as well as documentaries about public figures (Bobby Fischer Against the World; Love, Marilyn).

Drawing from over 100 hours of recorded interviews, What Happened, Miss Simone? lets Simone narrate her own story: a child prodigy, trained to be the first black classical pianist, becomes a reluctant jazz singer and then an eager Civil Rights Movement revolutionary. Her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, the documentary’s executive producer, and Al Schackman, Simone’s guitarist for 40 years, provide reliable insights into Simone’s triumphs and heartbreaks. Garbus has been criticized for screentime given to Simone’s abusive husband, but Andy Stroud also served as her manager during peak years and viewers can readily gauge his objectivity for themselves. Furthermore, placed where it is, “Work Song” operates in the documentary as an indictment of Stroud’s treatment of Nina Simone.

RATING 8 / 10