There is a controversy on social media. Zoe Saldana, a light skinned black woman, has been cast to play the singer songwriter Nina Simone, who was a very dark skinned black woman, in the upcoming biographical drama Nina. After having watched Liz Garbus’ brilliant documentary What Happened Miss Simone, I can fully understand why casting Saldana was a bad idea. Nina Simone was black the way Joan of Arc was French, or Dostoevsky Russian, an archetypal figure who can’t be watered down without doing violence to her essence.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, deep in the heart of the Jim Crow South. As a child she dreamed, not of being a singer, but of being a classical pianist. When she was turned down as a student by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and began to play in small, often seedy nightclubs, she changed her name to avoid embarrassing her conservative, religious parents. Eventually the owner of the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City demanded that she sing as well as play the piano, and she found her calling. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her popularity grew. She wrote songs, recorded both studio and live albums, and toured throughout the Europe and the United States. She become involved, not only in the Civil Rights Movement, but in the radical, black nationalist wing of the Civil Rights Movement. “I don’t believe in non-violence,” she remarked to Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights Movement, in turn, became involved in Simone’s music, inspiring songs like Mississippi Goddam and “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, written after King’s murder. Not surprisingly, Simone’s radicalism damaged her career, even as it enriched her art, getting her blacklisted by radio stations all over the United States. When the black nationalist movement she sang for and about eventually got smashed by the federal government and faded away, her opportunities to perform, and her income, were diminished. As her career fell apart, she fell apart, the damage done to her soul by racism, a history of mental illness, and by an abusive, exploitive husband, turning her against her daughter, and herself. She became angry, emotionally unstable, unable to perform without the psychotropic drugs that damaged her ability to play the piano. She died in 2003, well-known but not fully appreciated for the great artist she was.
I could have easily heard Nina Simone play live. I was 38 years old when she died, but to be honest, I had no idea who she was until fairly recently. That doesn’t mean I’ve never heard her music. I grew up hearing quite a few of her songs, but only, and this is important, in cover versions. If Hollywood is about to dilute her memory by casting Zoe Saldana in her fictionalized biography, it’s really nothing very new. In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone was too radical for mainstream radio, but far too great an artist to completely ignore. So they served up her music in white face. I grew up hearing Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. It’s part of my childhood, but I heard it sung by the British rock and roll group The Animals, not by Simone herself. I had no idea the song Ain’t Got No, I Got Life that Treat Williams performed in Milos Foreman’s film version of the musical Hair had been written by Nina Simone. I’m not knocking Milos Foreman or The Animals, but I was amazed by just how much more depth Simone gave the lyrics than Eric Burdon. I had always through Burdon was singing lyrics he didn’t entirely understand, but it was only after I saw What Happened Miss Simone that I fully understood why.
As different as I am from Nina Simone, I came away from What Happened Miss Simone feeling as if I had been introduced to a kindred spirit, a soul mate I never got a chance to meet. Simone wasn’t just a performer or a singer, but a woman who had deeply wounded by American racism, and could only really stay alive as long as she was able to transform her pain into her art. As the Jazz critic Stanley Crouch remarks midway through the documentary, she was too much of a rebel for the revolution, an outcast among outcasts, a radical among radicals. It’s a testament to a powerful soul that she made it to the age of 70, that she kept pushing against the demons inside her in order to create her music until the very end. It’s also a testament to the radical politics that got her pushed out of the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps if Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse had discovered something to fight for, they might have found a reason to live past 30, even if it had meant another 40 years of pain and emotional anguish.