What Happens When A Question is Answered Incorrectly
By Jéan-Claude Quintyne
Questions should be answered correctly if they’re asked, aren’t they? And if they’re asked, and morphed into the title of a film, shouldn’t the film, the moment the reel begins its violent, two hour spinning-spell, supply an answer and utilize the remaining time to provide evidence for its question with the most visually gripping shots and aurally stimulating sound it can, making viewers forget the simplicity of the question?
Liz Garbus’ Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which illustrates the rise and “fall” of Nina Simone, the signer-songwriter and civil rights activist, is a film that doesn’t answer its question.
Though, that’s not completely correct. In its attempt, the film does something remarkable: It answers its question incorrectly.
The piece suggests that Simone’s manic depression is “what happened” to her, which isn’t revealed until the third act of the film. As high praise and discussion of Simone’s artistic genius shifts from love, confusion, and conclusion, with interviewees reflecting on their memories of the singer throughout their interactions with her over the course of her career, they articulate their experiences with Simone as her episodes got increasingly worse.
Simone is painted, after the hype of her marriage to Andrew Stroud sours, for close to an hour as a “monster”—accompanied by short sequences of unflattering photos of the star—and an entitled, pretentious, “sex fiend” before the ill-placed reveal.
Her daughter, Lisa Simone, talks about her confusion as to why her mother went from loving to aggressive as the stress upon the singer increased. Nina found solace in using her voice as a weapon to strengthen the civil rights movement in an effective, emotional, and powerful way to spread the message. So passionate was she about fighting for civil rights that she only played songs that dealt explicitly with it, making it hard for her to secure shows and airtime on the radio.
That, accompanied with her money-hungry abusive husband increased her stress, and (likely) triggered a higher level of intensity of her episodes—something that, because of the timing of the “reveal,” made interviewees seem oblivious to her depression.
Perhaps Garbus intended to put viewers directly into Simone’s life—for the singer didn’t know about her disease and struggled to make sense of her reactions to the times and her pain—which is the only justifiable excuse for when her manic depression is revealed, a framing device that mirrors Simone’s life.
Still, it’s odd to blame her downfall on that.
And it’s difficult to ignore the bizarre nature of the reveal, for it can be labeled as a last-minute shock aimed to elicit sympathy that’s supposed to undo an hour’s-worth of confusion. Greater shock would have manifested should it have been said the latter-day Simone was actually an imposter, controlled by aliens, or an ill-programmed hologram. But to place all the weight of the abuse and turmoil the genius pianist faced for her entire life upon her mental disorder illustrates how the placement of particular information can topple an otherwise carefully constructed film.
Increasingly puzzling is the presence of Simone’s ex-husband. Andrew Stroud. whose presence in the film is quite disturbing: He gets an opportunity to speak ill of his former wife, trying to convince viewers that his time with Simone was just as confusing as watching her struggle with manic depression—he says she was influenced by civil rights activists, calling her a “terrorist” and, in cringe-worthy fashion, tries to justify the beatings, abuse, and mental and emotional exhaustion he contributed to Simone’s life.
The tone and pace of the film is just as brooding and dark as Simone’s singing voice, which, before touched by the pain and anger she channeled through it as a result of racism and the civil rights movement, still highlighted emotions that manifest a depth that reached an unimaginable place.
While not enough time is dedicated to focusing on Nina’s art, fragments of interviews with the singer, and clips of her songs remind us of her power, strength, and genius as an artist.