Director of Nina Simone documentary: "We were in our edit room when the events of Ferguson were unfolding. It reminds you that the struggle is ongoing"

Salon talks to Liz Garbus about "What Happened, Miss Simone?," the icon's life and career and civil rights

Published June 28, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

Nina Simone in a still from "What Happened, Miss Simone?"       (Sundance Institute)
Nina Simone in a still from "What Happened, Miss Simone?" (Sundance Institute)

Liz Garbus has long used film as a means to take a closer look at people who don’t quite fit the mold or expectations society sets for them, whether through personal choice, circumstance, or a pure inability to conform.

The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker first came to prominence with the 1998 documentary that she co-directed with Wilbert Rideau and Jonathan Stack, "The Farm: Angola USA," a look at the lives of six inmates at the infamous Louisiana penitentiary. Following the film’s success, she co-founded the production company Moxie Firecracker Films with Rory Kennedy. Since then, she’s directed a number of documentaries focused on various criminals, politicians and icons, including Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe. At face value, her subjects may seem quite different, but if anything Garbus’ careful and intimate portraits show that no matter where along society’s spectrum a person lies, there are universals of the human existence that connect us all.

Garbus’ latest film, "What Happened, Miss Simone?," profiles the legendary musician, performer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Billed as A Netflix Documentary (and RadicalMedia Production in association with Moxie Firecracker Productions), it is the first original film to be financed by the popular streaming platform, which released it to the public this week. Using source material gathered from around the world, including diaries, performance archives, interviews and, notably, more than 25 hours of audio of Simone talking about her life for her autobiography, Garbus provides a revealing, intimate study of the most important American artists of all time.

The film arrives at a time when all of America is facing the realities and horrors of racism in the 21st century. It was still in process during the tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri last year, and its release comes in a month where a videotaped, animalistic assault of 14 year-old black girl by a white police officer in McKinney, Texas shocked people around the world and a racially-motivated massacre in Charleston, South Carolina left nine people dead and a country in mourning.

In that sense, despite its historic narrative, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" speaks to some of the most pressing issues of today and is essential viewing far beyond its compelling, often rare archival footage and music. Simone’s story is inextricably intertwined with the story of race in America, and Garbus’ holistic portrayal of the artist provides a vivid and evocative parallel to the civil rights era of the mid-20th century. A piano prodigy, Simone came of age and learned her craft in the Jim Crow South, in a community where racism was everywhere but rarely spoken about. Her inimitable musical style came about as a fusion of traditions in black and white America, drawing influence from gospel, soul, jazz, classical and pop, among other sounds. She most fully blossoms as an artist and as a person during the peak of the civil rights movement—of which she was a vocal, and sometimes militaristic proponent — and is devastated almost beyond repair in its unsatisfactory aftermath. Simone’s journey is undoubtedly one of genius and struggle, and over all of her ups and downs Garbus maintains a sensitive, non-judgemental view of the immensely talented, enigmatic woman.

Garbus recently spoke to Salon about her creative process, the making of the documentary and her perspective on Simone’s continuing legacy.

What inspired you to profile Nina Simone in a film? Was she someone you grew up listening to or did you discover her as an adult?

I started listening to Nina Simone in college. I think Nina is many different things to many different people, and I think for me in college she had the patina of activist / icon as well as a person you'd want to put on to create a good mood when you're hanging out with friends. So I knew her music, but I didn't know anything about her life and her life story.

I was invited to pitch myself as the director for this project, and I thought, "Yeah, I'm definitely interested, but is there a story there?" I picked up Nina's memoir and started reading about her and her life, and I thought "Oh my goodness, there is so much I didn't know about the person behind this music."

What were some of the first steps you took in researching the film and developing the storyline?

Nina has famously covered the song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." One of the things I realized from reading her biography and from watching interviews with her was that she was quite often misunderstood, and also appropriated by various audiences in ways she chafed against. I set off to find as much Nina as possible to tell her story, so the process of filmmaking began with a worldwide treasure hunt for every scrap of Nina Simone that was left on this Earth. All of the music and performances, but also diaries, notes and letters. Wonderfully, we were able to recover interviews and tapes of a writer recording her for her autobiography — dozens of hours of Nina telling her own life and story in her own words.

I loved how you showcased her written words within the film. In your Marilyn Monroe documentary you were inspired by personal writing as well. What did that teach you about Nina that was different than interviews? How much more does she reveal?

In those notes and diaries you see the struggles of a woman who was dealing with a lot of pain and who was approaching it in a very honest way. Nina was forthcoming in interviews about herself. She talked about her dreams of wanting to be a classical pianist being deferred and she talked about politics and civil rights. The extent to which her depression overran much of her performing career, and of course the violence in her family life, that is information we learn more from her notes and diaries than public interviews.

Thinking about things that sum Nina Simone up, I kept coming back to the word contrast. You see that between Nina the classical performer and Nina the pop performer, or Nina the civil rights activist and Nina the battered wife.

I think Nina's life was in a constant state of opposition. She was the most inspired and empowered when she got involved with the civil rights movement, and then of course in her personal life that was a very brutal and oppressed time because she was living in a marriage that was quite violent. I think when she left the United States and kind of gave up her music career, there was happiness but also profound loneliness because music was an anchor in her life. At every moment there were these kind of oppositional forces that were ruling her, so she literally has quite a bipolar existence.

If you think about her childhood and upbringing, she grew up learning music in the church in the black community, but it was the white community and a Russian immigrant piano teacher who taught her the classical teachings of Bach, so those two forces were in her childhood as well. She talks about walking along the railroad tracks [that separated the black and white communities in her town]. She really did straddle the lines between different worlds at all times in her life, and that's what made her music so innovative and creative. She fused so many influences into one piece of music. Those oppositions play out very powerfully in her art, but they are very difficult to live with.

With Nina, or Bobby Fischer, or Marilyn Monroe, people could argue that their greatest gifts are also a double-edged sword that kept them a prisoner in their own lives. Is that something you found to be true with Nina?

Absolutely. Nina says, "Music has been a burden and a joy for as long as I can remember." And I think that that's right. I look at someone like Bobby Fischer, and I think that’s kind of the place of the prodigy. You have this thing that you're so gifted at and so there is this beauty and this gift in this art, be it chess, or music, or performing, but at the same time it's that thing that isolates you from the world and from socializing and all of the experiences your peers are having. In that sense prodigies are socialized very differently than the rest of us. I think it is a double-edged sword. They don't go through all the same experiences that the rest of us do, so they are different from us, and that difference can be perceived as arrogance or difficulty. So they're kind of in this straightjacket of beautiful creativity, but also isolation and judgment.

After Nina was rejected by the conservatory she immediately gets this job playing piano, but it's this conservatory-ready woman playing nightclubs. Then all of a sudden she's married. Later in the film you make the point that she's around all of these civil rights leaders and intellectuals, and that she didn't share their background. How much are prodigies sheltered from the world around them? It's like life kind of hit her as an adult at some point and she was burst out of that bubble.

That's right, I think she had an awakening in the early ‘60s. She talks about how growing up and that people didn't talk about race. It was always there — obviously it was everything around them — but you didn't talk about it. You didn't complain. You didn't express your anger and your rage, so that's bottled up. I think after 1959, after she had achieved some success with "Porgy," and some other successes, she could perhaps open herself up to some of the experiences that she had been bottling up for so long. She talks about the Birmingham church bombing as being that turning point for her. Certainly the writing of "Mississippi Goddamn" was a major turning point in her career and her journey as an artist.

Since she had already achieved some level of mainstream success, do you think she was able to hit different audiences with the message of the civil rights era than some other artists?

In that time there were artists coming together to lend their voices to the movement. There were many artists coming together to lend their voices to get involved in the moment and yes, parlay their commercial success to further their beliefs. Nina did it as she did everything in that sort of passionate, no-holds-barred manner. As her husband and manager complained, it led to a real withering of her commercial career because her political message was quite radical and it frightened white people. So she paid a price for that from a commercial point of view.

It seems like she took her rage from her personal life and put it back into the movement. At one point, she talks about if her husband would have let her have a gun she would have gone to the south and just started killing people. It's extra-striking hearing a woman say something like that. This idea of female anger. 

Right. She was taking it in every direction. There was the legacy of slavery and racism in America, which built her rage, and there was the internal conflict in her family that was bolstering that. Thankfully for the movement and her fans, she was channeling that oppression into ways that was inspiring to so many people, but there was a price for herself.

It seemed like her mental health problems started coming to a head during that time. In the film, Ambassador Shabazz [Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’ daughter, who lived next door to Nina Simone as a child] said you couldn't be that into the movement without going through some things yourself because you were facing the very structure of society at that time. Do you feel in that sense she had become free internally?

I think there was an oppositional force there. Of course she was incredibly outspoken about her political truth, but I don't think inside she felt free. She was constantly confronting oppression, and I don't think that was a feeling of freedom for her at all. She says at the beginning of the film, "What does it mean to be free?" and she says, "It's no fear." While I think she was fearless, American society was not structured for that kind of freedom in anyone.

Your use of performance clips not only showcase her talent, but really who she was in those moments, whether it was that early performance in New York where she came out from behind the piano for the first time, or later on in Switzerland where you can see she has kind of unravelled. Do you think you could watch a bunch of clips in a row and see where she was mentally?

Yeah. She was such a dynamic performer that whatever was going on with her at the time and whatever phase she was in came out in her performance. No performances were the same. I think that's why people liked seeing her so much. She was so exciting and you never knew what was going to happen. It was like watching a tightrope act. From the earliest recorded performances when she's in a spaghetti-strapped dress and singing in a very contained fashion to ten years later when she's onstage at the village gate or at the Harlem Renaissance festival, it's an extraordinary trajectory for an artist.

In your research process you get to know your subjects in a really intimate fashion. What does the idea of an icon or a legend mean to you at this point?

My first documentary feature film was called "The Farm: Angola USA," which was about a prison in Louisiana, and then I made a film called "The Execution of Wanda Jean" about a woman and the death penalty, and then I made a film called girlhood about girls in juvenile prison and the foster care system in Baltimore. I've also made three films about icons, but that's just been a part of my work. I think there are themes that are consistent throughout all of these films. Examining humanity and its darkness and light, and living life in those grey areas. Somebody like Bobby Fischer who accomplished so much also had this darkness. Nina certainly fits in that trend as well as the people in all of the other films that I've worked on. With Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone, their struggles and highs and lows were massively felt by so many around them, but they also inspired so many. Those shades of grey where they exists is what interests me.

One commonality about being a public figure or literally being in a prison is that idea of just being trapped in your environment.

That's right. I'd say they all did feel trapped. Nina wanted a break so badly. She wanted to have a "regular family life," but in some ways those things were impossible for her. Whether she really would have enjoyed it had she had it, who knows? When you choose a life in the public like that, you become a slave to it, for many people.

As a woman in the creative industry what about Nina's story resonates with you on that level, as far as putting yourself in the public or balancing work with the rest of your life?

Well, my career is very different from Nina Simone's. She's a performer and I am behind the camera. But I relate to her struggles — I think all of us do — balancing work and family life and motherhood and activism and art. I relate to her struggling with her struggling with personal demons that we all confront. And she was doing it in a time when mental health was much less understood than it is today. I relate to her. I don't think it's because I'm in the arts, but because her struggles are relatable.

Obviously everyone is in part a product of their times, but what, if anything, do you think would be different about her story today? 

I think the climate for performers is very different. The industry is so commercialized and controlled by a few companies which manage artists. She came up in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and I think today we are seeing a rebirth of that movement, so in that sense there is a parallel, but look, she grew up in America. We've changed a lot, but a lot is the same. I think Nina's music is as relevant now as when she was writing it.

How much did the current conversation surrounding civil rights shape your movie versus if you had made it five years ago?

We were in our edit room when the events of Ferguson were unfolding. It reminds you that the struggle is ongoing and that her music and her words are as necessary and as relevant as they were then. It doesn't shape the film, but it is certainly a ripe moment for the film to be coming out. Nina's is a voice that is very needed today.

Ultimately, what do you see as her lasting legacy?

So many artists will cite her as their icon or influence. I think it is because her artistic and musical prowess was so undisputed and highly regarded and she combined a political activism that was without an apology or hesitation or reservation. I think that kind of power is incredibly appealing and that's why people are speaking about her today. That's why her music is coming back. That's why everyone is referencing and sampling it, because she represents that power and that bravery.

She is pretty incredible. Do you have a favorite song?

It's like choosing amongst children. One of my favorite songs that was not in the movie, which was sad for me, because you can't get everything into it. It’s a song called, "Four Women," an extraordinary story about four African American women and their different experiences. To me, it feels like a piece of theater. It's a really wonderful song.

By Jamie Ludwig

MORE FROM Jamie Ludwig

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Blues Documentary Film Jazz Liz Garbus Movies Music Netflix Nina Simone What Happened Miss Simone?