The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), a title inspired by the words of Maya Angelou, provides a poignant reflection of Simone’s career. The film opens with the following excerpt by Angelou:
“Miss Simone, you are idolized,
even loved, by millions now.
But what happened, Miss Simone?”
Director Liz Garber incorporates a mix of archive footage and interviews to provide an intimate portrayal of Nina Simone. In an Indiewire article that explores the problematic implications of Garber’s portrayal of Simone, Tanya Steele notes that the film’s title focuses on Simone’s tragic downward spiral rather than the impressive impact she had has a talented musician. Steele writes, “When I look at Nina Simone, I see what is right with her, and what was wrong with the culture that surrounded her.”
Steele’s essay inspires a reexamination of the documentary’s title to reflect Simone’s perseverance as an a artist. Reinterpreting the film’s title, we can also read the question “What happened, Miss Simone?” as a critical condemnation of the cultural landscape surrounding Nina Simone and reaffirm her strength in the face of incredibly difficult times. Thus, instead of asking what went wrong with her, the title could suggest the culpability of individuals who devalued her existence as a powerful black woman and influential artist. In an interview with Attallah Shabbazz, daughter of Malcolm X, Shabbazz aptly remarks, “She was not in odds with the time, the times were at odd with her.”
The documentary includes an intimate look into Simone’s experiences through images of her diary entries that reveal harrowing accounts of the violence she endured as a wife and the pressures she faced as a performer. Simone channeled her success into music that didn’t shy away from controversy but instead challenged the deplorable treatment of black Americans and fueled the activists of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to citing the influence of the revolutionary song, “Mississippi Goddam,” the documentary features powerful sequences that juxtapose her songs with images from that time period. For instance, Simone’s expressive voice as she sings the lyrics “blood on the leaves” haunts a photograph of the lynching of a young black man.
Nina Simone actively engaged with fellow activists to inspire change, saying in an interview featured in the documentary, “I cannot be an artist and not reflect the times.” By contextualizing her career with the tumultuous history that surrounded her, the documentary provides the viewer with the opportunity to better understand the circumstances that might have affected everything from her career choices to her behavior. Simone fought to share her voice when most people were not ready to listen.
Ultimately the title, echoing Maya Angelou’s words, points to changes in public perception, and not Simone’s personal battles, as cause for her “ruin.” Simone’s words ring true today, and the questions raised by the documentary reminds us why we need to keep listening.