With the arrival of Cynthia Mort’s (blasphemous) biopic Nina, I think it is high time that I turn some of my anger on the subject of misrepresentation towards a well written blog post. I also think now is a good time to reflect on my deep respect for the creative genius of artists and change makers.
The other night I gathered a few friends and watched the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? First, I would like to examine the title because it points to some of the ebb and flow in Nina’s life. The title of the documentary is based on a Maya Angelou poem. To me the title words what happened are very significant if you look at them from a Liberian context. Liberian parents are the sorts of people that often ask,”But what happene’?” when some thing has gone wrong. In America it is possible to ask what happened at the party last weekend or during a family beach vacation when nothing bad has happened. Since my brain sees the happened in a Liberian (sort of) lens, I want to offer a few ideas about what this title invokes. It brings to mind the idea that somewhere while on the bumpy road to success Ms. Simone has crashed into a few complications (to say the least). The documentary proves that to be fact rather than ideal conjecture because it examines her history of oppression, abuse, segregation, mental-illness, and the loss of her vehicle for self-expression, and her voice.
The Burning Rage
Nina Simone is a musician that I have considered unparalleled since I was (maybe) 14. She made me believe that it was possible for women with deep or low voice to gain respect in the world of music. Her unique look and incomprehensible ability to escape conformity I commend. Steve Griffin, Nina’s longtime guitarist and friend, said in an interview that how she was prone to mood swings and fits of sudden anger. His remarks on her creativity and almost bi-polar attitude begs the question: can brilliant unstifled creativity exist without the madness?
I have heard before that for there to be great passion we must be able to feel anger. I’m not sure where I heard that but it makes sense to me. Passionate people get angry about issues that are important, or things that are heinously wrong that are being ignored. I read recently that anger is our way of identifying ourselves from others. Looking at the scope of Nina’s life and human capacity to continue to exist and work for decades driven mad by brutality, pervasive melancholy, living with disgust at a people groups inability to hear your cries has started me wondering at the mind of an artist. Somehow all of the suffering only seems to lead to the end of a day where you will only be remembered as “that crazy lady that performed a jaunty jazzy tune or two”, it makes me angry. American history has been corrupted by an attempt to make the world we are living in appear pretty and safe.
If you are of color your entire life’s work can be swept away or boiled down to a simple phrase like I have a dream. It seems that you very soul can be made easy to package, cheap, and not worth pondering. What fills me with boiling anger is the idea that another person that met you once on your death bed is the one with the power to write your history. In the USA your story is only good if it can be made into a touching Hollywood story, happy endings and everyone getting along. Think about the neat narratives that films like Remember Titans, Race, Nina, and White Man’s Burden create for us. Makes me want to scream ,”LIES”.
Music and Fire
Looking at everything that Nina did and wanted to do brought to mind one of my favorite Billy Joel songs, We Didn’t Start the Fire.‘
This stream of consciousness song looks at one word descriptions of events that make up history between 1949 and 1989. What gets me about the song and brings us back to Nina is the we didn’t start the fire part. After looking at the people in history that American’s themselves barely know about I am reminded that Nina Simone didn’t start the fire nor did MLK nor Malcolm nor even Freddy D, it was always burning since the worlds been turning (my bout of cheese for the day) .
Fools and a Cheap Education
Screenwriter/Director Cynthia Mort did herself one favor when she decided to make this “Nina film” and that was to skip all the parts that involved civil rights and moves straight to a part of Nina Simone’s life, where she was deeply unhappy. However, she managed to skip the part of Nina’s life that Nina herself was most proud of and in order to refresh a name that many of my generation have never heard of, or cared about in that persons greatest inner turmoil.
You know how it’s one of the most heinous things to say to someone is? I wish you had never been born. Well I’m going to use that statement on this piece of work. I wish this film had never been made, because the legacy it’s leaving behind is not one that I think should be allowed into ethos.
I have on principle refused to see this film because I don’t think that the story is one that I would want to watch more than one time. But also because I don’t support or condone the theft of hard won identity. This section I named fools and a cheap education because my only words for the people participating in the creation of the Nina movie is fools. But also I think that the film itself is a cheap way to educate the public about Nina Simone.
At This Point
I was going to use this last section to write about the amazing work of a timeless vocalist but I’d rather leave you with a few questions.
Does robbing another person of the right to their own story matter? If your a public figure and your life needs a bit of a reboot, does it matter if someone that never knew you or cared about you tells the story?
Can idolatry poison the way you tell a story? If you’re obsessed with someone or something won’t you tell the most beautiful story…
Is conformity as important as social pressure suggests?
I must say that I have my own answers to these questions but I do like the idea of them circling around in the heads of others and not just me.
If you’re Zubin (or want to) please comment below. This is a great time for me to learn about cultural zeitgeist events.