Nina Si­mone, mis­un­der­stood no more

Jewish film­maker Jeff Lieber­man’s new doc­u­men­tary tracks the leg­endary singer as she is im­pacted by clas­si­cal mu­sic, the seg­re­gated south and the civil rights move­ment


Jeff Lieber­man was en route to a South Carolina screen­ing of his first fea­ture, Re-emerg­ing: The Jews of Nige­ria, when he re­al­ized how close he’d be to the tiny Blue Ridge Moun­tain town of Tryon, North Carolina. The New York­based film­maker couldn’t pass up a side trip to the birthplace of Eu­nice Kath­leen Way­mon – bet­ter known to the masses as Nina Si­mone.

“I’d been a fan of hers since I was in high school, but al­ways felt like I didn’t quite un­der­stand her,” said Lieber­man, whose first en­counter with Si­mone’s fam­ily and child­hood friends led him to write and di­rect the new doc­u­men­tary The Amaz­ing Nina Si­mone. “As I read more about her, I re­al­ized she had such an amaz­ing back­story that I don’t think a lot of peo­ple know.”

Soon, how­ever, those not fa­mil­iar with Si­mone’s in­cred­i­ble story will only have them­selves to blame. A half-cen­tury af­ter the height of the singer and ac­tivist’s fame – and more than a decade af­ter her death in 2003 – a new wave of at­ten­tion is crest­ing. Lieber­man’s is just one of three Si­mone-cen­tered films to be re­leased this year, part of a resur­gence that also in­cludes bi­ogra­phies, re-re­leases of her mu­sic and a new, star-stud­ded trib­ute al­bum, Nina Re­vis­ited, fea­tur­ing the likes of Lau­ryn Hill and Usher.

What’s emerg­ing is a com­plete por­trait of Si­mone, from her sul­try love songs (“I Loves You, Porgy”) to her stri­dent civil-rights an­thems (“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”), as well as new per­spec­tives on her sex­u­al­ity, abu­sive mar­riage and the bipo­lar dis­or­der that she bat­tled most of her life. Though her views on black lib­er­a­tion leaned more to Mal­colm X than Martin Luther King Jr., her in­flu­ences and affini­ties were as broad and cross-cul­tural as her ap­peal.

That Si­mone’s story jibes with to­day’s head­lines means it’s not just her mu­sic but her mes­sage that res­onates.

“Any­time would be the right time to tell Nina Si­mone’s story,” said Liz Gar­bus, di­rec­tor of the doc­u­men­tary What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?, com­prised al­most en­tirely of pre­vi­ously un­seen archival video and au­dio, that de­buted on Net­flix in June. “How­ever, as it turned out, there has been a re­birth of aware­ness and di­a­logue about racial in­jus­tice in our coun­try.

“The events of Fer­gu­son were un­fold­ing while we were in our edit room cut­ting in the pic­tures of armed guards dis­pers­ing protesters. [Hers] is a uniquely needed voice right now.”

There’s even a bit of con­tro­versy: the biopic Nina, due out later this year, has inspired online pe­ti­tions over the cast­ing of the light-skinned Do­mini­can/Puerto Ri­can ac­tress Zoe Sal­dana as Si­mone. The script has also an­tag­o­nized her big­gest fans and chron­i­clers.

“So much of the story was fab­ri­cated,” Lieber­man said, “which was un­nec­es­sary given how dra­matic Si­mone’s story is.”

Born in 1933 to a poor yet prom­i­nent fam­ily, Eu­nice was play­ing the church or­gan by the age of three and mas­ter­ing Bach a few years later – a rare tal­ent only more re­mark­able in the Jim Crow South. Her neigh­bors banded to­gether to send her to New York’s em­i­nent Juil­liard School, where she was de­ter­mined to be­come “the world’s first black clas­si­cal pi­anist,” as she later wrote.

A rejection by the es­teemed Curtis School of Mu­sic in Philadelphia – Si­mone would for­ever at­tribute the turn­down to racism, though gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion was as likely to blame – al­tered her tra­jec­tory and iden­tity. To make ends meet, she took a pi­ano-play­ing gig in an At­lantic City bar, where she sang pub­licly for the first time, as the job re­quired. She changed her name, lest her mother find out how low she’d sunk.

But Si­mone didn’t re­main undis­cov­ered for long. Barely 30 when she made her solo de­but at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1963, the sold-out show in New York City her­alded her ar­rival as “the High Priest­ess of Soul.” The set list, how­ever, re­vealed the di­ver­sity of her mu­si­cal in­flu­ences and in­cli­na­tions: among the mix of jazz, gospel, blues and folk were Jewish and He­brew melodies, in­clud­ing “Od Yishama,” “Eretz Avat Chalav” and a cou­ple of in­stru­men­tals listed as “Shalom Sha­bat” and “Vaynikehu.”

That night was a defin­ing mo­ment for Si­mone in more ways than one: Af­ter the con­cert, her friend Lorraine Hans­berry, the cel­e­brated play­wright, called not to con­grat­u­late her but to share the big­ger news of that day: Dr. King had been jailed in Birm­ing­ham.

“What are you do­ing for the move­ment?” Hans­berry asked.

That sum­mer’s mur­der of NAACP leader Medgar Evers was “the match that lit the flame” for Si­mone, and she agreed to per­form at an in­te­grated con­cert in Alabama, where she met King.

“She doesn’t say, ‘ How do you do?’ or any­thing,” her long­time gui­tarist Al Schack­man, who Si­mone de­scribed in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as a “gawky Jewish kid,” re­called in both films. “She says, ‘I’m not non­vi­o­lent!’”

Within a year she was back at Carnegie Hall, de­but­ing her first protest song, “Mis­sis­sippi God­dam,” for a mostly white au­di­ence.

“I com­posed it out of pure anger,” she wrote.

To­day, those who have ex­pe­ri­enced dis­crim­i­na­tion can find com­fort in Si­mone’s courage. At a time of very public dis­course on race re­la­tions, com­bined with nos­tal­gia for her un­mis­take­able con­tralto, Si­mone holds pow­er­ful ap­peal. In mid-July, Lieber­man hosted a screen­ing of his film in Har­lem, fol­lowed by the “Largest Ever Nina Si­mone Dance Party.” Nearly 1,000 peo­ple showed up.

“As a Jewish film­maker, I’m in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing is­sues of iden­tity and ori­gin and an­ces­try, and find­ing a place as a mi­nor­ity in a larger so­ci­ety,” he said. “[Be­ing Jewish in Amer­ica] is very dif­fer­ent from the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, but it has some par­al­lels.”

Far be­yond what he could in­clude in the film, Lieber­man dis­cov­ered ways in which Si­mone’s life was im­pacted by Jews. Sev­eral of her early men­tors and fel­low mu­si­cians were Jewish men, and dur­ing her later no­madic years – Si­mone lived in Liberia and France – she spent sev­eral weeks in Is­rael.

“She found peace with some mu­si­cians there, and at the beach,” he said.

While di­rec­tor Liz Gar­bus says that “a feel­ing of hu­man­ism runs through all my work” and her own “tra­di­tion of Ju­daism and hu­man­ism are in­ter­twined,” she was, like Lieber­man, pri­mar­ily driven to re­veal an artist who has been mis­un­der­stood – and whose work re­mains pow­er­fully rel­e­vant.

As Si­mone her­self de­clares to the cam­era, in both films: “An artist’s duty is to re­flect the times... How can you be an artist and not re­flect the times? That, to me, is the def­i­ni­tion of an artist.” – JTA

(Ch­eryl Gorski)

JEFF LIEBER­MAN (left) with mu­si­cian Emile La­timer, who worked with Nina Si­mone and was a men­tor to many.

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