During an interview conducted with Nina Simone in 1968, which appears in Liz Garbus’s new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, there’s a moment where the classically trained pianist and high priestess of soul physically bristles after the (white) journalist asks her what freedom means to her. Simone looks away, tugs at her clothing, and then casually snaps back at the interviewer without making eye contact: “Same thing it means to you—you tell me.”
Stop the show there and you might mistake her discomfort for reluctance. And it is a kind of reluctance—she doesn’t want to deal with this white person anymore. Then she turns her head, flashes a smile, laughs, and really gets into it: “It’s just a feeling,” she says, shaking her head, maybe at her own self for engaging with a question she’s obviously taking issue with. But she’s too fierce and intelligent to miss the opportunity. “How are you going to tell anyone how it feels to be in love?” she asks the interviewer. You can see her mind at work behind her eyes, in her body, in the way she shifts in her seated position on the couch. Her mood goes taut and she says, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.”
You watch this early on in the documentary, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival last night, and it’s the sort of revelation of character that triggers shivers and chills. This is a conversation occurring during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, with a singer who was becoming more and more radical with each passing year. From 1963’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a profane and angry single that radio stations refused to play, to this moment in 1968—the year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination—on this couch, with this white man asking about freedom: Nina Simone is on fire in this moment.
And what of our historical moment? Garbus spoke to the crowd last night about the dearth of musicians making music that reflects the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism in this country. She then introduced John Legend, who performed “Lilac Wine” and two other songs. As someone who writes about music with some regularity, I was annoyed. She likely hasn't seen J. Cole’s performance of “Be Free” on the Late Show With David Letterman. Or listened to Kendrick Lamar’s “i” or “Untitled.” Or Vince Staples' "Hands Up." Or Run the Jewels' "Early." Not all of that work is on the level of Simone’s classics, but there are contemporary artists making art out of this moment. And, as Rawiya Kameir astutely observes for The Fader, liberation music that articulates (and questions an ideology), as opposed to simpler songs of protest, is more necessary right now.
Kameir writes about D'Angelo's long-gestating album Black Messiah, a release that was rushed to the public after a grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. It's an album "whose revolutionary concept is based on love," something you can feel in the breathtaking movements from songs like "1000 Deaths" to "The Charade," "Prayer" to "Betray My Heart."
That Garbus doesn’t seem to know about this music is troubling. Of course, it’s the safe perspective to occupy—today isn’t like yesterday, you say, with a rueful shake of the head. Sure. But there’s no excuse for not paying attention.
As a film, What Happened, Miss Simone? is similarly safe. Garbus, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker with a long track record of success, doesn’t make any bold formal decisions while tracking the life of the celebrated singer and civil rights activist, from her birth in North Carolina in 1933 to her death in the south of France, where she’d exiled herself, in 2003. This is conventional documentary filmmaking, with the expected talking head commentary. Garbus gives you lots of great performance footage from the ’50s to the ’80s, audio and video of intimate interviews with Simone (and present-day interviews with Simone’s friends and family), and excerpts from Simone’s letters and journals. Those texts make for some of the most insightful and moving moments in the movie, offering Simone’s unfiltered thoughts on depression, abuse, and sex. She describes the physical abuse at the hands of her former husband and manager, Andrew Stroud. She writes about the bottomless feeling of her then-undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. She’s candid about her desire for sex; you catch a brief glimpse of language describing an orgasm, and it’s so raw and human, those chills come back.
What Happened, Miss Simone? was produced by Netflix and will be streaming sometime this year. Hopefully soon. It’s necessary. Know the history, but also keep your eyes to the future.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.