We could be doing better to learn more about black history and activism to amplify the work of black folks and contribute to dismantling white supremacy. This month, we’ll be highlighting some of the lives and experiences of black people on the Blog Collab–and, going forward, being more intentional about the films, directors, and messages we give our time and attention. We’re kicking off the month with an absolute legend of music and black advocacy, Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
The story of Nina Simone’s success, jeopardized by abuse, mental illness, and both public and industrial responses to her Civil Rights activism.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life.”
Nina Simone expressed her thoughts on freedom over 50 years ago, and they still ring all too real. Though she gained fame as one of the most talented jazz and blues performers ever, Simone was truly fired up by Civil Rights activism while battling abuse, mental illness, and rejection by the music industry. Our film gives us some insight into the complexity of Simone’s public and private lives.
Playing piano in church from a young age, Simone grew to believe she would be the first black woman to receive recognition for playing classical piano. When two white women noticed Simone’s talent, she gained the lessons and sponsorship to pursue this dream. However, at the same time, Simone grew lonely, belonging in neither the black neighborhood where she lived, nor the white neighborhood where she spent much of her time practicing.
After studying piano at Juilliard for a short time, Simone expected to continue her studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but she was denied admission, very likely due to her race. Out of money to continue her education, Simone had no choice but to work in order to contribute to the rest of her family, who had relocated to be with her in Philly. Working in a club in Atlantic City and playing jazz her mother would never approve of, the girl born Eunice Waymon became the woman known as Nina Simone.
With her unique way of playing classically inspired jazz and singing with deep emotion, it isn’t long before Nina Simone records her first album, Little Girl Blue. To her surprise, her cover of “I Loves You, Porgy” is an instant hit. Soon after, Simone meets Andy Stroud, the man who will become her husband and manager.
After the birth of her daughter, Simone’s career begins to really take off. She plays Carnegie Hall, though in her mind isn’t playing music that measures up to the classical piano she grew up performing. Despite her success, it’s at this point that those around her notice the toll constant work takes on Simone’s well-being. Husband Andy is psychologically and physically abusive, spending a good deal of time in his managerial role encouraging her to always keep working. Simone is on several medications to deal with her depression and trouble sleeping, and suffers from drastic mood swings. At the heart of all of her work, there seems to be nothing; in spite of her achievements, Simone is still looking for meaning.
Simone begins to find this meaning in activism. After the Birmingham church bombing that kills four young girls, Simone releases the controversial song “Mississippi Goddam.” Radios won’t play it as it’s too indecent because of the swearing…but, you know, white supremacist murder of black children is fine. Simone connects with the Civil Rights movement, finding purpose in fighting for the rights of black Americans. She connects with playwright Lorraine Hansberry in particular, and tells Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his face that she’s not nonviolent.
Fully committed to Civil Rights, Simone begins playing exclusively political songs. While she finds support in the movement, she gets none from her husband, who resents that she prioritizes politics over her (and his) career. Experiencing suicidal thoughts and seemingly having breakdowns at several times, the assassination of MLK, Jr. drives Simone from the States to Liberia. This time in her life seems to be a turning point as she feels happy in Liberia, but her relationship with her daughter suffers as Simone’s abusive behavior drives her away.
With her finances in trouble, Simone jumps to Switzerland and then France to perform in clubs again. On the verge of a breakdown, several of Simone’s friends help her find a place to live and receive treatment for newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. But is that enough to help the woman who is, in the words of Qubilah Shabazz, African royalty? “How does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?” she asks.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
I’m really grateful this film exists and gives us some insight to Nina Simone’s brilliance. I knew she didn’t have a happy life before diving in, but I wasn’t prepared for all of the challenges she faced, as a performer, activist, and black woman. It’s impossible not to admire her courage as a Civil Rights activist during a time when much of white America dismissed or outright rejected its message. Her cultural and social influence is difficult to overstate as she looms so large in modern history.
To be honest, I was hoping for a bit more insight into Simone’s interiority than was presented in the film. Perhaps this is down to her struggles with mental illness and her own image–in one interview, Simone reveals that she believes the Civil Rights movement has failed, seeming to imply that she could have done more. I suppose what my brain wants is to see evidence of some peace for Miss Simone, but we can’t know if that was one of her many accomplishments, or even one she wanted.