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Study Guide | Film

What Happened, Miss Simone?


Academy and Emmy award-winning producer/director Liz Garbus’ documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? explores the life and times of one of the most iconic and extraordinary musical artists of the 20th century: Nina Simone. Dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul” for her ability to captivate and mesmerize listeners with her hypnotic voice and musical talents, What Happened, Miss Simone? unpacks the colorful and turbulent life of the classically trained pianist, Atlantic City piano-bar chanteuse, black revolutionary, and legendary recording artist.

In this documentary, director Liz Garbus interweaves recently unearthed recordings of Simone telling her life story, interviews with family members and collaborators, rare archival footage, and taped concert performances to create an authentic and moving portrait of one of the least understood yet most beloved artists of our time.

Most importantly, What Happened Miss Simone? chronicles Simone’s role in the civil rights movement and her determination to use her musical talents, heart, soul, and voice to speak and sing out against racial inequality and discrimination.


Director's Statement
“What happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice, that has so little tenderness, yet overflows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”
—Dr. Maya Angelou, 1970; Redbook magazine

I started making films in the late 1990s in prisons. First, at Louisiana State Penitentiary, a slave plantation-turned-maximum-security prison. After The Farm, I went westward to Oklahoma, where I made a film called The Execution of Wanda Jean, about the first African-American woman to be executed by the United States in the modern era of capital punishment. Other films explored social justice and the criminal justice system, like Girlhood, about girls in and out of juvenile institutions in Baltimore, and Shouting Fire, about the price of preserving freedom of speech. And then I moved from the prisons of America into prisons of the mind. I made a film about the mad genius of Bobby Fischer in Bobby Fischer Against The World, and then the story of the inner world of a fierce yet fragile woman named Marilyn Monroe, in Love, Marilyn. I draw this trajectory because it all feels very clear to me now that this work was leading to this one new place, this one new film—the story of a little understood but much-loved genius named Nina Simone.

In What Happened, Miss Simone?, all the themes I have been exploring in documentaries for 15 years have merged symphonically in one extraordinary life. Nina Simone's brilliance would forever change the musical landscape and yet she never fully got her due. She struggled against demons from both within and without, and her life was both a reflection of the legacy of racism in America as well as an extraordinary example of the power a righteous voice can bring to bear against even the most wicked historical legacies. I didn’t know it at the outset, but it is clear to me now that What Happened, Miss Simone? is the film I had been practicing my whole life to make.

The project came to me from Justin Wilkes at RadicalMedia, who had been approached by Nina’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, and the Estate of Nina Simone, to produce a film about Nina. After years of considering various projects and pitches from filmmakers, they were finally ready to allow Nina’s story to be told. I had always been a huge fan of Nina’s music—my husband will recall I had her album “Little Girl Blue” playing the first time he came over to my apartment for dinner—but I didn’t know her life story. When Radical reached out to me, I picked up her autobiography, I Put A Spell on You, written by Nina with the help of Stephen Cleary. I read it in two hours. I was spellbound. This was my dream project.

Once I began speaking to those who knew Nina, I began to see her as a brilliant gem with many facets, some more craggy than others. Through conversations with Lisa, I began to appreciate how tough it was to grow up as Nina’s daughter. In talking to her closest friends, like Gerrit de Bruin and Al Schackman, I came to understand both her intense charisma and loyalty, as well as the fact that she could shift instantly, without warning, towards rage and mistrust. In talking to her musicians and colleagues, I learned yet another side—a startling, once-in-a-lifetime kind of musical genius that defied classification. And underneath it all, I discovered the child prodigy who had grown up under the tutelage of white matrons in the Jim Crow South, cut off from normal social life and relations, who chafed for most of her life from untreated and undiagnosed mental illness. Nina herself lived a life of unflinching honesty. I needed, with this film, to strive for that level of complexity. How to tell this story, and be true to all these facets of her, in a narrative of approximately 100 minutes?

The answer, for me, was to start with her. Her voice. So, along with my extraordinary team of producers, we began to comb the earth for all remnants of Nina telling her story. Radio interviews, TV interviews, backstage chats at performances, diaries, letters, notebooks left behind. At some point in October, 2013, about a month into research, it occurred to me: Could Stephen Cleary, the co-writer of her autobiography, have taped his conversations with her? I tracked him down—he was at that moment working in Australia—and after several unanswered emails he finally responded. Did he tape the interviews with Nina that were the basis of her autobiography? Yes. Did he still have those tapes? Hard to know. But if they existed, they would be in his home in France, in the Pyrenees, where he would not return for several weeks. Upon his return home, my pestering unanswered emails continued, until finally, on New Year’s Day, 2014, I got an email from him with the subject: “Happy New Year’s News.” He had found the tapes—25.5 hours of Nina talking about her life. My producer, Amy Hobby, was soon on a plane to France with her DAT machine to copy and protect Stephen’s archive.

This only made us more determined. Hadn’t she spent time with some University of Nebraska students in the late 1960s who were writing about her, and had they kept their tapes? Hadn’t she started to work on her autobiography in the 1970s, only to abandon that project? What happened to those tapes? Of course, visual materials were very much in our sights as well. We re-mastered the work print of a 1968 NYU student film, shot at the New York club the Village Gate, in order to view every frame of Nina from that era. We visited a friend of Nina’s in Switzerland who kept pictures from their years together in a shack in the woods a few hours outside of Zurich. We found never-before-seen interviews with her late husband from an aborted documentary project. It didn’t all come up roses—there was heartbreak along the way. Chief amongst them was the fire that destroyed the dailies and outtakes from the 1968 student film. But I can say with some confidence that we left no Nina stone unturned; it was a worldwide scavenger hunt covering 40 years of materials.

Focusing on Nina’s own voice also led me to decide to keep the number of interviews I would conduct very limited. While many famous musicians have credited Nina as a key artistic influence, I didn’t want to make a biopic with celebrities talking about other celebrities. I wanted to talk only to those whose recollections would feel as intimate as the incredible archival recordings we had unearthed. I wanted this to be the inside story, coming purely from Nina’s own voice and those in her life who knew her most closely. Working with cinematographer Igor Martinovic, we developed a shooting style for the interviews that would keep them feeling tied to the archival world of the film, finding the one Cooke lens in the U.S. that still had uncoated glass.

Bringing this film into the world now, in January 2015, I am aware of the ripeness of this historical moment. A spark has been re-ignited in the civil rights movement by the high-profile killings of unarmed black men by the white police. In recent months, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri looked not unlike those of Selma, Mississippi, where Nina played, amidst threats of mortal danger, her rousing anthem “Mississippi Goddam.” Late in her life, Nina mourned the death of the movement and of its leaders, lamenting that her civil rights songs were not relevant anymore. Today, “Mississippi Goddam” feels as relevant as ever. I wish she were here to inspire us with her music, her incisive words and unrelenting commitment to truth and justice. As Maya Angelou summed up in her article about Nina in Redbook: “She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation. She is an extremist, extremely realized.” I wonder if it’s too much to hope that in witnessing her life, other artists may be moved to step into the great void she left behind.

—Liz Garbus

See the Enrichment Activities section of this guide for a close-reading activity using the Director’s Notes.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”