Photos courtesy of Netflix/What Happened Miss Simone?
Nina Simone’s deep, near-androgynous voice could fill a room to its ceiling, and it does just that on her 1958 cover of “The Other Woman.” The song is one of pervasive sadness—Simone sings of a wife's quiet victory over her husband's mistress, believing that her man will always return to her. Aside from being a meek triumph indicative of male-female dynamics at the time, the song can allude to Simone's lifelong internal battles between two women—the successful and trailblazing "High Priestess of Soul", and the unpredictable bipolar that suffered through mental health trials before such things were commonly diagnosed.
Simone’s equally tragic and genius life is having a moment of popular reappraisal, with a controversial biopic, Nina, and a tribute album featuring the likes of Ms. Lauryn Hill and Usher on the horizon. It's most fully on display, though, in the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which comes out tomorrow, June 26. Directed by the Academy Award-nominated Liz Garbus, it's filled with interviews featuring friends, family, and Simone herself via previously unheard recordings.
The doc uses master strokes to paint Simone’s duality—one side as the pioneering Civil Rights icon born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the Jim Crow South, and the other the vicious manic-depressive who would lash out at friends and audience members alike. What Happened, Miss Simone? follows Simone’s career as she jumps into the Civil Rights movement with the song “Mississippi Goddam” in the 60s, heads into self-imposed exile and battles addiction in the ensuing decades, and ultimately finds redemption and renewed critical acceptance in the years before her death in 2003.
What matters most about Nina Simone, and what the documentary successfully captures, is that she was not only a genius female musician, but she was a genius black female musician. To her, her own blackness was saturated and unavoidable. Early in Simone’s career, before her music took on race publicly and explicitly, she struggled with her appearance. After private diary notes were revealed to the public, that fight became much clearer. In an undated note to herself, she wrote:
I can’t be white and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise.
If I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.
Even though Simone’s diary was private, her songs and performances were not. In a cloud of smoke, the 1963 church bombing that killed four black children in Birmingham, Alabama changed Simone’s life forever—as it did for many black Americans.
Simone sat down and wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in an hour. Upon its release as a single, the song was boycotted in some Southern states, and promotional copies were smashed by radio stations elsewhere. At the time,the American public had scarcely heard a curse in a song’s title or heard such explicit condemnation of violence against blacks. Even though the controversy grabbed headlines, Simone’s star rose even further.
Yet while she befriended Civil Rights icons and became one herself, performing at events like the Montgomery to Selma marches, her personal life continued to crumble in the background. As shown in the documentary, while relentlessly touring she wrote to herself: “Must take sleeping pills to sleep & yellow pills to go on stage.” Simone used alcohol, pills and sex throughout her life to keep her mental state in check, all to varying degrees of failure. She faced physical cruelties as well as mental ones: Throughout her marriage to former NYPD sergeant Andrew Stroud, Simone was beaten frequently, without reason, and relentlessly. As both her husband and manager, Stroud controlled her life to the minutest detail.
As Simone’s dedication to the cause of civil rights strengthened, the bond she shared with Stroud weakened. While she wrote song after song about the black experience in America, Stroud saw those songs as roadblocks to continued mainstream success. Lucky for us, the Nina Simone that Garbus’s documentary spends so much time on is the black hero speaking directly to her persecuted people.
On Simone’s 1966 album Let It All Out, the tenth track is titled “Images.” Sung a cappella, the song is based on a poem by the African-American poet Waring Cuney. Oddly enough, the album also features “The Other Woman” eight years after Simone first performed it. Just as that song’s narrator sang of her suffering from her burden as the wife to an adulterous husband, “Images” also features Simone singing directly to a female audience. However, this time it’s specifically the black woman and her diminishing pride. In many ways, she’s singing to her former, vulnerable self:
She does not know her beauty
She thinks her brown glory
She thinks her brown body has no glory
If she could dance naked under palm trees
And see her image in the river she would know
Yes, she would know
But there are no palm trees in the street
No palm trees in the street
And dishwater gives back no images
Foreshadowing her own decision to later flee the US because of looming tax charges and her disillusionment with the state of civil rights progress, Simone romanticizes her race’s return to Africa. Using imagery of palm trees and “the river,” Simone embraces her role as mother hen to misguided black women. Per usual, her cultural significance cast a shadow over her personal issues still lingering in the background.
What makes Simone’s legacy so challenging is the dark period of her career. After leaving the country in 1974, she bounced from Liberia to Switzerland to France, with small stops elsewhere in between. At one point, almost destitute, she was found wandering the halls of a hotel naked, wielding a knife. Later, she would set her own home in France on fire. Friends found her in a state of shambles and slowly helped her resurrect her life and career. The once mighty “High Priestess of Soul” reached the bottom, but, through performing in her later years, she recovered some of what was once lost.
Exiled abroad, Simone hid in the shadows of her mental illness. Like the misbegotten mistress in “The Other Woman,” Simone ultimately spent much of her life alone and without a lasting partner:
The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume
The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room
There are never toys that's scattered everywhere
And when her own man comes to call on her
He'll find her waiting like a lonesome queen
Cos when she's by his side
It's such a change from old routine
But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep
The other woman will never have his love to keep
And as the years go by the other woman
Will spend her life alone
In reality, Simone would end up every bit of that “lonesome queen” that she sang of. Her career downturn was self-imposed due to her refusal to record songs without “by any means necessary” Civil Rights messages—something she unabashedly believed in. Amid Simone’s struggles and career failure in the 70s and 80s, there’s the silent triumph of not compromising ideals. She showed blacks, women, and the burgeoning gay and lesbian community who were drawn to her that they shouldn’t concede anything, a message that continues to resonate today.
It’s only right that Simone is getting recognized again through the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, the upcoming controversial biopic Nina starring Zoe Saldana wearing a nose prosthetic, and the Nina Simone tribute album Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone. That album features the similarly embattled Lauryn Hill covering “Feeling Good.” It’s fitting that Hill is featured on the album with her dusky voice, as it was Simone who likely paved the way for powerful, opinionated black women like her.
Whether it was the trailblazer or the hell raiser, Nina Simone inhabited both personalities, often at the same time. She was undeniably a dynamic woman in a time when it was tough to be one. Add on the black identity that she first struggled with and then later championed, and she’s not just Nina Simone—she’s a cultural icon. Most importantly, she paved the way for many women and African-Americans by proving that they could be brilliant while imperfect in the eyes of others.
Austin Bryant is a writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.