Director: Liz Garbus
Cinematographer: Igor Martinovic
In recent years a trend has begun to emerge in telling the story of a famous or notorious person: instead of attempting to recount an entire life, from birth to death, the focus is shifted to a specific chapter of the person’s history – a moment that is indicative of the person as a whole, a cinematic synecdoche if you will, that allows for a more detailed and focused representation. Movies that belong to this newer category are Selma, My Week with Marilyn, Saving Mr. Banks, and The King’s Speech. The trick really works, it doesn’t guarantee success or a perfect film, but it’s less exhausting for the audience and it prevents those awkward temporal leaps that feel clumsy and as a viewer it is required to perform a mental acknowledgment of the jump. With the exception of Philippe Petite’s story in Man on Wire, I personally cannot think of any documentary that has utilized this same format. Granted it is harder to do, being able to rely only on archival footage and interviews does not allow to really delve into a specific moment in history without being boring or repetitive, but it would be great if it were possible.
In her new documentary, Liz Garbus takes on the life of the formidable Nina Simone. And while the subject is one of the most fascinating and indelible humans that have left a mark on not just the music world but well beyond it, the director has a hard time not venturing in Behind the Music territory and focusing on the melodrama of the singer and activist, rather than her accomplishments and her influence on those who came after – and that was infuriating. This was my first Liz Garbus documentary, but I don’t think of her very highly after having seen her treatment of Miss Simone.
It’s not all bad, though. The first act of the documentary is a strong one. The film opens with Nina Simone’s childhood and her connection to the piano. We are told, by Simone herself, that she learned to play the piano in order to accompany her pastor mother and the religious revivals she would preach at. At a certain point, during a church performance a couple of white women took the young girl under their wing and made it their mission to tutor the playing skills of the young child. Practicing for hours each day prevented little Eunice (the singer’s real name) from being very social, but it did lead to her becoming masterful in the art of playing classical music. Eventually that all led to a time at Juilliard, but her classical career abruptly ended when she was denied a spot at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia due to the color of her skin. But a living had to be made, and so Eunice began playing at bars in Atlantic City, where she also began to sing, and changed her name to Nina Simone so that her family wouldn’t find out about the seedy locations in which she was performing.
When her career skyrockets is also when Garbus begins to make mistakes. Nina Simone is no longer with us, so in order to tell her side of the story all that was available were recordings and chosen passages from the singer’s diaries. Appearing on screen to tell their side, though, are Simone’s daughter and former husband. It’s clear that Simone’s daughter had a very difficult relationship with her mother, both idolizing her and resenting her, and this affects the direction the narrative takes. We also must spend an uncomfortable amount of time with Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud – an abusive and controlling man. We hear about times when he hit her and belittled her, and at one horrifying moment he retells a time that he hit her so hard that he drew blood and gashed her head and when he got home he stapled her cut together, matter-of-factly proud of the fact that his actions prevented even a scar from forming. Aside from the fact that Simone’s daughter is an executive producer on the documentary (and it’s clear how much she cares for her father, at one point referring to him as the original Puff Daddy), it really doesn’t make sense to include Stroud in the film at all. His job seems only to be to sling mud on the image of Nina Simone. Also, all this melodramatic personal life of the singer detracts from the overall narrative. It is not always necessary to focus on the personal life of the person whose story is being told. Sometimes their actions speak for themselves and their human struggles are distracting. Which is also how it feels when the film focuses on Simone’s mental illness and quieter twilight years. It never focuses on the impact she has had on other performers, on the industry as a whole, or on how her work as a civil rights activist has impacted future generations to this day, because what a phenomenal woman she was when it came to speaking her mind.
After the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, Nina Simone wrote the song Mississippi Goddam – a song filled with anger, fatigue and rage directed at the injustices that were being faced by black communities all around the country. Nina Simone began using her music to indict the country on its treatment of black people, she refused to let it happen under her nose and not use her status to her advantage, even penning songs about Jim Crow. Something that the movie Selma neglected to acknowledge last year was Miss Simone’s involvement and performance in the Alabama town during the demonstrations, for she was there and MLK was in the front row. These decisions cost the singer a great deal, for she grew harder to book and she also grew angrier and more militant in her actions and beliefs. Eventually leading to the singer to leave the US all together, first living in Liberia and then moving to Europe. I found myself wishing the documentary were all about Nina Simone’s activism. One interviewee speaks to how it felt to have one of the country’s most famous and influential singers speak about the injustices black people faced at the hands of the white population and police brutality, and to do it using language that was so scandalous at the time. It is palpable what this action did in the hearts of those who were being attacked and mistreated, but it’s given the same weight as the singer’s bipolar disorder or the beatings she received from her husband or her supposed nymphomaniac tendencies (why include that at all?). This documentary is also coming out at a time when we are experiencing, after a too long period of silence, another series of movements that specifically affect the lives of people of color across the country and Nina Simone’s activism, words and lyrics are once again as relevant now as they were then. Why didn’t the movie connect the two? Lazy storytelling on nearsightedness because ultimately the story is just a mishmash of all of the events that made up Nina Simone’s life and this period is just one part of the whole?
At one point a speaker is seen on screen who cries that if this is a Christian nation then why is nobody paying attention to the countless black lives that are being murdered before people’s very eyes. Fifty years later we have the death, amongst many others, of a man because police stood by as he asphyxiated before their very eyes after being arrested for allegedly selling counterfeit cigarettes. We also have a white man who enters a church in Charleston, South Carolina killing nine black people and after arresting him the cops bought him Burger King… Goddam.