IN THE LATE 1990s, Liz Garbus was making films in prisons. Her first, The Farm: Angola, USA, about a Louisiana slave plantation turned maximum-security prison led to The Execution of Wanda Jean, chronicling the story of the first African-American woman to be executed in the United States in the modern era of capital punishment. She then moved to social justice issues with Girlhood, following girls revolving through Baltimore’s juvenile institutes, and Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, about the costs of freedom of speech. Then, she says, she moved from “the prisons of America to the prisons of the minds,” with films about Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe. “I draw this trajectory because it all feels very clear to me now that this work was leading to this one new place,” she says in a statement, “the story of the little understood but much-loved genius named Nina Simone.”
In her new Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Garbus borrows themes from her earlier work over the past 15 years, weaving together a compelling narrative of a misunderstood warrior and outspoken chanteuse who began her musical journey as a young girl named Eunice Waymon, playing classical music and gospel hymns in her mother’s church, Old St. Luke’s CME in Tyrone, North Carolina. By the time she became Nina Simone, the jazz lounge singer was reinventing herself as an artist of her times, with an alluring, androgynous voice whose truth, power, and rebellion became the soundtrack of the ’60s civil rights movement with such anthems as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam,” “The Backlash Blues,” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” all the while caged by the demons that haunted her for much of her life:
I’ll tell you what freedom is to me — no fear!
I mean, really — no fear!
If I could have that half my life — no fear.
In What Happened, Miss Simone? Garbus lets Nina speak for herself: of her melancholy about dreams deferred; of how her looks and dark skin kept her from achieving the kind of fame and allure of her fairer-skinned counterparts; of the physical abuse inflicted by her husband and manager Andrew Stroud; of how she later turned her rage onto her daughter, Lisa; of her struggles with a bipolar condition that was not diagnosed until the 1980s, long after irreparable damage had been done; of being cast away, with no husband, no child, and no more reasons to fight. She left America to live in Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, and England — finally settling in the South of France — after the civil rights movement had faltered. By 1982, the proud fighter had conceded no reason to rally or sing the old songs. “It’s not keeping with the times,” she said.
The time has come around again for Nina Simone. With the mass killing of nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a 21-year-old white gunman wanting to start a race war, and unarmed African-American men gunned down by white police officers, What Happened, Miss Simone? allows Nina Simone to once again issue a call to action, as the words she left behind galvanize a new generation of artists and activists. This generation channels her daring and conviction in a new millennium movement of civil rights action reborn in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, and Ferguson, Missouri; the scenes from Ferguson looked not unlike the marches from Selma, Alabama, to Mississippi in 1965, when the patron saint of the rebellion risked her life for a song:
Lord, have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me, I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
The keep on saying, “Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble, do it slow
Washing the windows, do it slow
Picking the cotton, do it slow
You’re just plain rotten, do it slow
You’re too damn lazy, do it slow
The thinking’s crazy, do it slow
Where am I going? What am I doing?
I don’t know, I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
On the phone with Garber, five days after the South Carolina shootings, she spoke to the Los Angeles Review of Books about the making of her “dream project,” and the continuation of Nina Simone’s legacy.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Had you been actively seeking out an opportunity to do a project on Nina Simone?
LIZ GARBUS: I was asked to pitch myself as a director by Radical Media, who had partnered with the estate of Nina Simone to undertake a documentary film about Nina Simone. Radical Media put together a list of different documentary filmmakers and that the estate responded to certain names, and I went in to express the kind of approach that I would take in making the film about Nina Simone, and we moved on from there.
Your recent documentaries have included profiles of Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe. What made you want to pursue Nina Simone’s story?
To me, Nina Simone is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and I don’t think she’s appreciated for her musical prowess and how many artists she’s influenced, or what she was doing with music. And, also, she led an extraordinary life, and it’s a model for an entertainer’s involvement in the revolution. She also had struggles psychologically that made her very ill-understood and judged. So for me this was a fascinating journey to go on.
The estate has long been opposed to any documentary projects and yet were actively involved in wanting to see this project made. Why was this the right time?
I think that’s a question more for the family to answer than for me. I mean I can talk about my own approach, which essentially is that I worked with them. My approach was very much from an archival point of view. I wanted the film to be in Nina’s voice, drawn from the archival footage and from what she left behind on this earth for us to understand her, and so to that end we found letters and diaries and notes and recordings and private audio interviews and public ones, and we really used Nina herself as the starting point for the documentary film.
It took several months, but you were able to get interview tapes from Stephen Cleary, the co-writer of Nina Simone’s autobiography, I Put A Spell On You. Was that the jumping off point from which you realized you could do the narrative from Nina’s voice?
The Stephen Cleary interviews were just one source. We spent six to nine months looking for everything. Stephen Cleary was just one example of Nina telling her story, but we found interviews as far back as 1959 all the way through to the mid-1990s of her talking about her life, so we indeed had the materials for Nina to tell her story in her own voice. It’s a collection of many different sources. I spent six months searching for materials to see what I could put together to make this film and see what else I would need. It was through listening to these many different sources, and, and watching them and screening everything, that I began to understand what I had and what I needed in order to make the film.
You had a very specific shooting style for the film. What led you to that aesthetic?
I shot the interviews in that way because I wanted them to blend seamlessly with the archival material that we were getting; so for them to be filmed through a lens that had uncoated glass, for instance, that would match the way the lens would be constructed when Nina was being shot, and oftentimes I used different DPs because of the availability of a person on a job for a long period of time — so I had two great cinematographers that I worked with (Igor Martinovic; Man on Wire, House of Cards and Rachel Morrison; Dope, Fruitvale Station).
Working with Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who’s an executive producer on the project, as well as featured in the film — what kind of sensibility was she able to bring to the project?
She brought an honesty and a bravery and trust to the film. She shared some very vulnerable and painful memories and she had no parameters. She didn’t say: Oh, don’t use this. Or, don’t tell that. She was totally uninvolved in the creative process and really turned over her trust to me, and I was impressed by that, and I wondered how many of us would be so caring and trusting with our family’s stories, especially one that is as complicated and important as her mother’s.
You also chose to interview those who were close to Simone personally, rather than a ream of celebrity admirers, to illuminate the portrait of who Simone was — and what her legacy now means to so many. Why was that important to the story’s narrative thread?
You know, I didn’t want to go to a really huge set up; I didn’t want a lot of talking heads for the film. I wanted it to be from an inside perspective. So I only really spoke to people who had known Nina for long periods of time, and who had known her very intimately and wanted to talk, or those who were around at very pivotal moments of her career who could sort of round out the narrative for us.
Certainly there’s a tragic irony involved as I have this conversation with you just days after the church shooting in Charleston, and how reminiscent it is of the killings of the four girls in the church in Alabama and the assassination that prompted one of Nina’s most seminal works from the civil right movement, Mississippi Goddam.
Yeah, I mean, look, the more things change the more they stay the same. I think Nina Simone is as relevant now as she was when she was writing those songs, and it was Birmingham church bombing that inspired her to write “Mississippi Goddam,” and just this past week we had a massacre of nine people in a church of prayer. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s sickening, and the white supremacist movement is strong and organized in the south, and unfortunately these songs are as relevant as they were when she first wrote them.
There is definitely a resurgence of interest in Simone’s music. The New York Times published a piece that ran this morning which spoke to the various music artists who have embraced Simone’s work, and it noted a connection between Kanye West and Nina Simone, do you see parallels in —
I’m not going to comment on Kanye West. I don’t know the article.
I’m just interested in whether you see a connection or parallels between Nina Simone, and the work that some hip-hop artists are doing in their work? Anyone specific?
I don’t want to comment on Kanye West specifically, but there’s an album being put out in conjunction with the release of our film where artists like Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige and Common are singing covers of Nina Simone songs, and I think there are artists today who see her as a model of activism and engagement, and how an entertainer can force the needle and speak truth to power. And I think that there are many artists who are standing on her shoulders and trying to do that now as the civil rights movement in this country is becoming energized again.
This is Netflix’s first commissioned original documentary. How did they come on board with the project?
When we first developing the idea, Netflix was on a short list of people that we pitched to and they pursued the film really aggressively, and so they were in it from the beginning.
It will have screened theatrically on Wednesday in New York, with a Los Angeles theatrical run on Friday, when this will be published, which is also when it premieres on Netflix. Will there be any additional theatrical releases planned?
On Friday on Netflix it goes into 62 million homes, so that’s a pretty wide release and we’re pretty excited by that.
As someone who is an admitted fan of Simone’s was there something specific that you learned about her that you didn’t know before having taken this journey, anything that you believe is important for viewers to take note of while watching this film?
I think Nina lived a tremendously honest, brave life and she always confronted injustice when she saw it, and she called it out, and she paid a big price for that. In today’s world of commercialization and multinational corporations controlling artistic output, she’s a sorely needed model. And what I hope, really, after people watch this film, is that they go back and listen to Nina Simone and that they have a really rich, three-dimensional experience of her music.