Entertainers have a huge role in inspiring people and keeping them energised for change and social justice, says the director of an intimate documentary covering the personal trials and extraordinary public triumphs of Nina Simone.
Liz Garbus, who has delved deep into the archives of the musical icon’s life – reading from her diaries, letters and showing personal film footage – for the film ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ now showing on Netflix, and she tells HuffPostUK why artists who speak today stand on Nina’s shoulders.
She says: “In the sixties, it was very clear, that connection between artist and movement and keeping people energised.
“When they marched from Selma to Montgomery, what was at the end? A show, by beloved artists – Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, and that type of inspiration and recognition and joy that entertainers can bring to a movement is something that we need today. The artists who do it are calling on Nina’s legacy.”
Nina Simone was a pioneer for how entertainers can ignite social change, says Liz Garbus
The power of social media has made it a lot easier to share the message than when Nina Simone was around, of course, but Liz points out, “She used music and her passions and life experiences also, so it touched people very deeply.”
The film includes personal accounts by Nina’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly of the volatile relationship between her parents, and also the abuse she suffered at her famous mother’s hands, and Liz reveals that no subject was off limits in her exhaustive research for the filim, which took 18 months to make.
“Lisa is her mother’s daughter, very brave, honest and open. There was no time she said she didn’t want to go there,” she remembers. “That’s extraordinary. What I find remarkable is that, after everything she went through with the upset of her childhood, she also has love and appreciation, and she doesn’t let one cloud the other.”
Nina Simone could be charming, but her family life is revealed in the film as extremely volatile
As for the film maker herself, after spending so many months in the company of the music legend, she has feelings for Nina as strong as for her own family members, she says…
“I liked her. I think I have feelings for her now as I would for a family member, I acknowledge her rough sides, but I still love her, possibly almost more for understanding those rough sides. It makes me more empathetic with her, not less.”
For Liz Garbus, the story of Nina Simone is a lot more than that of musical legend…
“When I scratched away at the surface, I realised there was this fascinating story about psychology, American history, the story of a prodigy, of mental illness and genius. It had so many elements that drew me to it.”
Nina Simone's childhood dream was to perform at Carnegie Hall, a dream that came true
If one of the many hats Nina wore was that of social culture revolutionary, who are her comparable contemporaries? Liz ponders…
“There is no modern Nina Simone, just there’ll never be another James Brown or Miles Davis, but there are artists who are standing on her shoulders, and channelling that energy.
“When we opened in New York, Lauryn Hill performed for us, and she shares much of the same charisma and performance, because she’s volatile and you never know which way she’s going to go, which makes for a thrilling show. She’s also politically engaged, so it was an honour to have her there for the film.”
'What Happened Miss Simone?' is available now on Netflix. Watch the trailer below...