Nina Simone walked slowly onto the stage, glared at the audience, then berated her musicians for playing too fast.
Her behaviour when I saw her at London’s Festival Hall was typical.
This new documentary film goes some way to explaining why she was such a difficult person.
Andrew Stroud, her husband and manager in the early 1960s, wanted Nina to be a commercial success. But she wanted to express her horror at the US state’s racism towards black people.
This is most evident in the song Mississippi Goddam.
She wrote it in response to the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and a racist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black children.
The song seethes with anger. “To do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don’t you see it?” she sang. “Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality”.
The film shows Nina performing it in front of 40,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march in 1965.
She and other black artists—including Sammy Davis Jr, James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte—defied a police ban to join the march.
Several southern states banned the song.
Nina’s daughter Lisa is partly responsible for the film. In it she recalls playing with Malcolm X’s children as a child and how her mother increasingly devoted herself to the cause.
This further alienated mainstream America—especially when she publicly supported the revolutionary Black Panthers.
She eventually gave up on the US, moving to Liberia, Switzerland and Holland before settling in France.
This film is a tremendous tribute to a great jazz performer and a political activist.
directed by Liz Garbus