What a time to release a documentary about Nina Simone, righteous exemplar/defender of black woman genius and, as her daughter says in this trailer, “an anomaly... brilliant... loved.” What a title it has, too: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Simone was deeply flawed, too—a drinker and, as this clip tells it, prone to bouts of violence, which made her all the more real and relatable, at least to her fans. She was complex, and unafraid to stretch into that complexity with a level of focused artistic devotion that could shift a room, a mind, the cultural climate—and it did. You can still find solace in her reedy tone. But imagine the brilliance, intensity, exasperation, and despair it must have taken to write and perform a song like this one:

Her friend Al Shackman told The Fader in 2006:

She had a certain dedication to Civil Rights, but not in the way that much of the public saw her commitment. She said, “It’s all well and good, but I’m not gonna get myself killed and I’m not gonna give up my life to please this group or that group. I’m doing what I’m doing; I want to make some money.” Backstage at a benefit, she said, “How much am I gonna get paid?” For a benefit! Somebody said, “Nina, how come you’re not that into Civil Rights?” And she said, “I DON’T HAVE TO BE INTO CIVIL RIGHTS, I AM CIVIL RIGHTS.”

The Netflix documentary, out in June, is directed by Liz Garbus, an accomplished documentarian who handles the stories of women with nuance and capability. (If you want to see an excellent example of documentary film as investigative journalism and cultural barometer, I highly recommend her 2011 jam There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.) I’ve got high hopes for this one, and I’m itching to see it—it feels like just the kind of thing we need right now.


Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.