Last June, the online media giant Netflix released What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary about the great American pianist, composer, and singer Nina Simone. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film essentially describes Nina as a passionate black woman who fought against her society and lost. It even suggests that she could have won and been as big as Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight if she hadn't gotten so involved in the black power movement and written all of those angry songs. The documentary is mostly told from the perspective of Nina's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who seems to have been much closer to her father, Andy Stroud (Nina's manager for many years), than her mother. We also learn that Stroud frequently beat his wife, and his wife often abused and beat their daughter.
Lisa does not appear in The Amazing Nina Simone, a documentary that is more reverential but also more rounded than Miss Simone. Directed by Jeff L. Lieberman, Amazing spends a good part of its running time describing the discovery and development of Nina Simone's genius. As a girl, she took to the piano in much the same way a duckling takes to water. And her brilliance was so considerable that even the educated whites of her sleepy and segregated North Carolina town could not miss it. She received training in classical piano from a teacher who placed Bach at the center of her musical universe. When Simone attended a boarding school in her teens, she achieved top grades in all of her classes. She was gifted, and she knew it.
Nina Simone was not supposed to be a pop or jazz musician but one of the top classical pianists of her age. This was her ambition and also the real root of her snobbery. She did not want to be treated like an entertainer, even while performing in a bar, but to be respected as an artist of the highest order. She even explains that she had no real wish to become a singer but was forced to do it to pay the bills and support her family and lover. Throughout her entire professional career, she was never able to unify her elite training with the lowbrow realities of the market. And her sense of self-greatness was not limited to her music but also defined the circles she moved in. Nina was much closer to the black intelligentsia than to the entertainment community. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the poet Langston Hughes, the novelist James Baldwin—these were her people.
Amazing also mentions something that is completely absent from Miss Simone—her bisexuality. She was attracted to and had relationships with men and women of every color. And so, we have on one side a classically trained woman who is very black (natural hair, full lips, dark skin), sexually open, and pro–black power, and on the other side a society that's rigidly patriarchal and racist. Few humans could survive these kinds of extremes without frequently suffering from mental disorders or collapses. And this, at the end of the day, is the point that is made by Amazing.
But there is one more thing I want to point out, and it concerns mental health and black Americans. When the police department in Waller County, Texas, reported that Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland hanged herself while in custody, many of her supporters and family members were quick to say that she was too mentally sound at the time (she had a new job and a new apartment, and things were looking up) to do such a horrible thing to herself. This might be true, but I think it is important for us to not totally dismiss the possibility that a mentally unstable person was unnecessarily placed into a very crazy and therefore very dangerous situation (three days in jail with no charges). I fear defending her sanity too strongly shuts and locks an important door that needs to be open and considered.
Bland might have had mental-health problems, and when you consider the society she lived in, which is as racist and patriarchal as the one Nina Simone challenged, this is understandable. In the same way that certain genetic conditions are expressed only in certain natural environments, certain states of mental health are expressed only in certain social environments. Bland might have suffered from depression, but she was also unfortunate to have lived in a country that exacerbates that propensity. Blacks are very much mental animals; we are not superhumans or subhumans. We can take only so much abuse and so many defeats. Yes, Simone might have been manic depressive, but this should tell us less about her as a person and much more about her environment and times.