Imagine this: A documentary about Rihanna where Chris Brown gets to talk about Rihanna’s temperament. Where Brown admits to hitting Rihanna as if it was par for the course because she was a difficult personality. Nina Simone's husband was described in this way: “He would step out of his car and people ran”. Nina, in her own words said: ”He put a gun to my head, then he tied me up and raped me.” Would we let Chris Brown complicate the narrative of the abuse? Why do we allow Nina Simone’s abuser to be part of the telling of her story?
Certainly, there are aspects to the documentary that we have not seen. Getting to hear parts of Nina Simone’s diary is priceless. However, we have to remember that those excerpts were chosen to support the narrative that the filmmaker wanted to bring forward.
Is it possible to tell the story of a Black woman, who is a genius, who experienced abuse and fully embrace the impact of the abuse on her life? Do we have to make her complicit in her abuse? Is it possible to experience a Black woman as a genius and show her process, highlight what informed that genius, versus shaping a narrative that is weighted toward her “damage”?
The title alone makes me cringe. That’s the premise for a story about Nina Simone? What happened to her? It reminded me of the title: "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?." How about…"The genius of Nina Simone." "The power of Nina Simone." Is that how our culture experiences the power that was this woman? What was wrong with her?
When I look at Nina Simone, I see what is right with her, and what was wrong with the culture that surrounded her.
Clearly, Nina Simone is one of America’s greatest geniuses. Certainly, like Charlie Parker, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, James Baldwin, her story is complex. But, the fact that this woman survived America and created such searingly beautiful music, is worthy of respectful documentation. This documentary is not that.
We expect less of Black women. We accept that Black women are trauma riddled, crazy, violent, angry beasts- especially the dark-skinned ones. Is that why this documentary is so beloved? Is that why this documentary is receiving little, to no, critical analysis?
I am all for addressing mental illness as it relates to Black women. What I am not here for is ascribing it to her creative dexterity. Nina Simone was a child prodigy. Yes, mental illness is part of her legacy, but there is another aspect to her, her process, her heart, her insight. Throughout the documentary, it was repeated that Ms Simone wanted to be the first Black classical pianist in America. But, very little information in the documentary supported the effort it took to bring that to fruition; the very specific, detailed process of her creation. I wonder if her process was in her diary. The first part of the documentary conveys some of that, and then it goes into blaming her for her “descent” after she disappears into the Civil Rights Movement. Think about it, this sensitive soul felt and conveyed in music, the trauma of the Black experience. She lived through the hate the culture exacted on Black America AFTER experiencing extreme abuse. Her story is the story of many Black women who are brilliant, freedom fighters.
The most generous review that I can give is, Liz Garbus continues the tradition of painting genius as tortured, afflicted, abusive. I’ve known genius. Genius is complex. It is way more captivating and charismatic than it is frightening. Genius exists in a type of isolation because few in the culture truly understand it. That is the difficulty with this documentary. We are given the outer layers of her genius, it is an observation of it, versus a true reading of it. Similar to Ken Burns’ portrait of Charlie Parker. Burns would have us believe that Parker was a drug addicted mummy. What they fail to convey is that both Parker and Simone created music that did not exist prior to their existence. HOW did they do that? That’s the documentary or film we have yet to see.
What is it to walk in the shoes of Nina Simone, a dark-skinned Black American girl born in the South? What is it to experience the rejections, the hurts and still keep it together enough to execute at a superior level? That is enough to drive anyone mad. Liz Garbus could not convey that because she is not that. She has not had that experience. Nope. She can’t. Perhaps she should have told the tale of Nina through Nina’s diaries- solely. Because, honestly, I am not interested in what people have to say about her, I am interested in the exalted Simone, what drove her to create.
Aside from her abuser telling her story, I was struck by something else. Nina Simone’s daughter stated that her mother invited the abuse. She was speaking, at that point, from the perspective of a child’s memory. A child cannot know the dynamics of an adult relationship. Whereas, I understood her daughter’s recounting of the abuse that she experienced at the hands of her mother and I wanted to hear that, I felt that it was irresponsible to say that Nina Simone invited the abuse she received. In this respect, Nina Simone’s diary was paramount. Nina’s words are haunting and should have stood on their own.
Did I step away feeling Nina Simone’s genius? No, I did not. I walked away feeling like, damn, what a scary woman. I was duped and I don’t appreciate it. Apparently, there is a documentary being made about Grace Jones. Thank goodness Grace Jones is alive to be interviewed. Otherwise, I would be afraid to watch. And let us be mindful of any documentaries on Lauryn Hill.
What is madness? What, exactly, creates it? We can’t answer that question. But what we can do is take care of our Artists as we tell their story. We must challenge the idea that Black women don’t feel abuse and aren’t impacted by it.
Nina Simone was more than crazy. Nina Simone was a genius, Black woman who left us incalculable magnificence.