Even though I’ve been on some no new blog ish lately, I have been trying to get back into the swing of watching lots of movies. For instance I finally went out and saw Mad Max: Fury Road at an Alamo Drafthouse (I suggest you do the same while you still can), and streamed
Edge of Tomorrow on HBO GO (I wonder how many times Emily Blunt had to do the cobra pose as a bewildered Tom Cruise — is there any other kind? — approached).

Also, oddly enough, I’ve seen a few good music documentaries over the last few months. In April I made it through the 4 hour, 2 part
Sinatra: All or Nothing documentary produced by HBO and directed by Alex Gibney; and the other day I revisited Shut Up and Play The Hits, the LCD Soundsystem documentary of their final show at Madison Square Garden. However, this post is about Nina Simone and the new documentary directed by Liz Garbus, produced by and now streaming on Netflix, What Happened, Miss Simone?

This piece from Grantland’s Brian Philips is what piqued my interest and provides great context for the documentary. Give it a read and if you’re still interested I implore you to watch What Happened, Miss Simone? and hear most of what happened from Miss Simone herself.

The documentary provides cultural and historical perspective on her life alongside America’s with regards to revolution as much as music, but explores both as they are often related. It accounts first hand the growth and development of Nina Simone with striking live performances, interviews, and fresh archival footage and photos as both she and the country teetered on the edge of violence and chaos during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s.

It also paints a portrait of the kind of tragic madness that exemplifies so many popular American musicians; often exacerbated by an abusive or controlling husband or manager, sometimes all in one as was the case with Nina Simone. This made living with and overcoming past failures; specifically the disappointment of never becoming a classical musician, the constant struggle to sing for survival, and the recurring demons of depression and sleeplessness, all the more difficult.

What does it mean to be black in America? Moreover, a black woman in America? I’ve pondered and seen a public discourse on these questions recently more than ever before in my mostly 21st century existence.

The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not one single thing. The black experience can’t be distilled into one definition or one specific trait or characteristic. As is true of all colors and cultures and ways of identifying one’s self. But in other words, there are many ways to live a black experience in America, or to feel black in America, or to be reminded that some events and predispositions are simply a result of being black in America.

Nina Simone lived a kind of life that could only have been lived as a black American woman. A life that no other person could assume or replicate because they feel better or more comfortable that way. Remarkably, she experienced and endured a wide spectrum of the many trying and ugly and occasionally beautiful things that all black people — but especially black women — have had to endure. Who at one point became the rich black bitch she was promised she’d become.

What Happened, Miss Simone? explores the cost of such aspirations, of living such a tumultuous life; a perpetual byproduct of her circumstance with the piano her only, extraordinary tool for survival. It’s inspiring and enlightening and frightening all at once.


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