MFS to Screen ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

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Nina Simone

Anyone looking for a way to celebrate Black History Month in Malibu may want to put this event on the short list. Malibu Film Society will screen the Academy Award-nominated documentary film “What Happened, Miss Simone?” on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m., followed by an audience Q&A with film producer/director Liz Garbus and Malcom X’s oldest daughter, Atallah Shabazz (who appears in the film).

The documentary is the authorized biographical story of famous singer, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who recorded over 40 albums, mostly between 1958 and 1974, in a range of musical styles. And, while the film includes enough music to have been one of five nominated for a best music film Grammy Award in 2016, it also tells Simone’s never-before-told personal story, with rarely seen footage.

Simone (1933 — 2003) was born into a poor family in North Carolina, began playing classical piano at a young age and became a virtuoso with the help of her school music teacher. She eventually won a place at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, but later dropped out after being unable to afford the tuition. 

She applied for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was not accepted there, despite an acclaimed audition. She blamed it on racism. That incident, along with other experiences growing up in the South, contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement. 

Simone got a job playing piano and singing in Atlantic City, which launched her recording career. She went through two tumultuous marriages, had one daughter, Lisa, and got stiffed by her first recording company, where she’d recorded one of her biggest all-time hits, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” 

Her choice of songs became more and more controversial during the civil rights era of the ‘60s as she began choosing numbers that hit the race issue head on, with titles like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow.” Civil rights became part of her concert repertoire, and she performed and spoke at a number of marches. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Simone preached a message of revolution. 

She left the U.S. in the ‘70s to live abroad, where she continued to record and tour. The older she got, the more popular her music became, with the advent of the Internet and more globalization. Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late ‘80s, which offered a medical explanation for her legendary temper, and died of breast cancer in 2003. 

In an interview with The Malibu Times, Garbus explained that Simone’s daughter had been asked for permission to do her mother’s story by various filmmakers for years. When she and the family finally decided it was time, they approached Santa Monica-based production company RadicalMedia, which then contacted Garbus about directing. 

“I think the family had seen and liked my earlier work,” Garbus said, referring to two of her best-known documentaries, “Bobby Fischer Against the World” (2011) and the Oscar-nominated “The Farm: Angola, USA” (1998). Garbus is the co-founder of Moxie Firecracker Films, whose other co-founder and business partner is Malibu resident Rory Kennedy.

Garbus was already familiar with Simone’s music when she got the project.

“I’d listened to and loved her music,” she said. “I played it when my future husband and I were still dating.”

The film required extensive research into archival film footage and written materials, as well as tracking down the surviving people who knew Simone best. Garbus took the film’s title from a Redbook magazine article that was written by Maya Angelou in the ‘70s. Angelou’s question, “What happened, Miss Simone?” was posed when Simone left the U.S. and disappeared from public view after being such a prominent figure.

Unlike many documentaries, Garbus said there’s been no problem in getting the film seen.

“It was the opening film of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and it had a terrific rollout,” she said. The film, released online on June 24, 2015, was Netflix’s first commissioned original documentary.

“Netflix had been acquiring documentaries for years,” Garbus explained, “but about five years ago, they got into creating their own content, and now that includes documentaries.”

For more information about the screening of “What Happened, Miss Simone,” visit malibufilmsociety.org.