We were all sitting in Bay Street Theatre last Friday night anxiously awaiting a viewing of “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the complicated story of the life of Nina Simone, the classically-trained pianist turned jazz composer and civil rights activist, when we heard the news that the film, chosen for the Filmmaker’s Choice Award at this year’s Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival, had just been shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Director Liz Garbus was being skyped in for the HT2FF festival from Los Angeles, where she was accepting an IDA Documentary film award for the film, while Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz who was raised next door to Nina Simone, was in the audience in the director’s stead to answer questions about the film.
Ms. Garbus, a celebrated documentary filmmaker in her own right, didn’t know much about Nina Simone when she was approached by Ms. Simone’s family and asked to make the film.
“I knew that she was cool, that she was a sophisticated woman, a brave boundary-buster,” she said. “Her story was so layered and interesting, it seemed like incredibly rich terrain.”
She borrowed the title of the film, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” from a question posed by writer Maya Angelou in a 1970 interview with the singer.
Injustice was never a stranger to Ms. Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon and raised in segregated North Carolina. Her childhood prowess at the piano led her to lessons with a white woman in her town, which meant taking harrowing trips across the railroad tracks to a side of town where she elicited unfriendly stares.
When she was 12, Ms. Simone was to play a recital at a white church, but after her parents were told they had to stand in the back of the church, she refused to play until they were given seats in the front row.
While funding from supporters at home, Ms. Simone enrolled in The Juilliard School in New York, but when she was turned down to study at The Curtis Institute, where she’d hoped to study to become the country’s first black classical concert pianist, she gave up on classical music.
She then took the stage name of Nina Simone, and began working in jazz clubs to pay her bills. She married New York City Police Detective Andrew Stroud, who quit the police force to manage her career, and became a stage force to be reckoned with.
But her personal life was anything but bliss. This film makes exceptional use of Ms. Simone’s personal diaries, a series of taped interviews uncovered for the film from storage in France, and discussions with Ms. Simone and Mr. Stroud’s daughter, Lisa, and family friends and fellow musicians, to paint a rich and intense portrait of the suffering Ms. Simone endured.
Some of that suffering was at the hands of her husband, and the film takes an unflinching look at her diary entries detailing his abuse. Some of that suffering was from her decision in the 1960s to devote herself to civil rights, at the expense of her career. Some of that suffering would later be diagnosed as manic depression. Some would cause her to lash out at people who loved her.
Ms. Shabbaz said she believed the film painted a fair picture of Ms. Simone.
“I did not want her vulnerabilities exploited without her genius being celebrated, and they did an amazing job,” she said. “I’m very protective of the real lives of shapers of culture. We’re all human…. I loved her, and I loved how they [the filmmakers] loved her.”
Another person who loved Ms. Simone was her friend and guitarist Al Shackman, who recalled in the film that Ms. Simone had once walked up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and said, emphatically, “I’m not nonviolent.”
Mr. Shackman remembered Dr. King had responded by saying, “that’s all right, sister. You don’t have to be.”
The film draws extensively from live concert footage that shows off Ms. Simone’s fantastic inventiveness at the piano, fusing Bach to Gershwin and protest music in a style that was unmistakably her own.
“She introduced fugue and counterpoint into the freewheeling jazz world,” remembered Mr. Shackman.
Producer Amy Hobby was on-hand for Friday’s screening in Sag Harbor, and she recalled how she’d been hounding Ms. Simone’s co-biographer, Stephen Cleary, to find tapes he’d made of Ms. Simone recounting her life story in her own words.
After several months, she received a phone call from Mr. Cleary, who lives in France, saying he’d found the tapes. She flew overseas the next day to begin digitizing the tapes for use in the film.
Ms. Hobby said she believes the predominantly female production team felt they were telling a story — of love, longing, abuse, career and family — that they could understand better because they are women.
“As women, we respected the complexity of her nature,” she said. “This woman is better than Dylan, better than all these icons.”