As storytellers, we are powerful. Whether through song, dance, fine art, the written or spoken word, we shape, define, and lead. For better or worse, we provide a voice for the many who will spend a lifetime unheard, as well as for those heralded far and wide. It is in voicing our praise, disdain or somewhere in between for the latter that we often run into the most trouble.
Twice in recent cinematic history, the life of the brilliant, daring, magnificently sublime artist/activist Nina Simone has been captured for public consumption. The narrative effort, Nina, met with tremendous opposition due to its casting of Zoe Saldana as the titular character. I won’t belabor that point, but if you missed the controversy, articles can be found here, here, and here. According to IMDB, the film is scheduled for release in 2015.
The other effort is a documentary, ‘What Happened, Miss. Simone?’ I have not seen the doc but filmmaker and cultural critic Tanya Steele, whom I follow closely, penned a critique of the film that arrested my soul. Much in the same way I was gutted the first time I heard Ms. Simone tussle with the lyrics in ‘Be My Husband‘. Better yet, watch her performance of it below and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. If you don’t, you’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good.
Ms. Steele’s article, The Irresponsibility of ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ is excerpted below but can read in its entirety here: and without question, it must be read.
Imagine this: A documentary about Rihanna where Chris Brown gets to talk about Rihanna’s temperament. Where Brown admits to hitting Rihanna as if it was par for the course because she was a difficult personality. Nina Simone’s husband was described in this way: “He would step out of his car and people ran”. Nina, in her own words, said: ”He put a gun to my head, then he tied me up and raped me.” Would we let Chris Brown complicate the narrative of the abuse? Why do we allow Nina Simone’s abuser to be part of the telling of her story?
Certainly, there are aspects to the documentary that we have not seen. Getting to hear parts of Nina Simone’s diary is priceless. However, we have to remember that those excerpts were chosen to support the narrative that the filmmaker wanted to bring forward.
Tanya Steele’s work can be found on her personal blog, Steele Ink.