What Happened, Miss Simone?

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
What Happened, Miss Simone? Movie Poster Image
Intense docu on iconic musician; graphic talk of abuse.
  • NR
  • 2015
  • 101 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The transformative power of music to express personal anguish and political conviction. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

In spite of her struggles with mental health issues and experiences with racism, Nina Simone attained success and world renown as an iconic vocalist, and used her art as a vehicle to express the pain and anger that fueled the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. 

Violence

Anecdotes and journal entries discuss how Simone's husband physically abused and raped her. In her journal, Simone talks of suicide. Simone's daughter discusses the physical abuse she suffered from her mother as her mother was struggling with mental illness. Archival photograph of a lynching, Civil Rights protests, and footage of riots in 1968 in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a song from this time performed in concert, Simone advocates violence against people and property in order to achieve racial equality. 

Sex

In journal entries, Simone writes about her desires for sex, and her sex life with her husband. 

Language

"N" word used. "F--k," "bitch," "crap," "hell." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarette smoking. Simone talks of taking sleeping pills in order to sleep while on grueling tours, and taking amphetamines in order to perform. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What Happened, Miss Simone? is a 2015 documentary about the tumultuous life and times of the iconic musician Nina Simone. The movie chronicles the discrimination she experienced when she was denied entry into a prestigious music conservatory as a young woman because she was Black, her initial success as a uniquely gifted vocalist and pianist, and how her increasingly militant support of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s took an increasing toll on that success, as she also suffered physical abuse from her husband/manager while struggling with what would later be understood as mental illness. Through interviews and from Simone's journal entries, this physical abuse is discussed in detail, including an incident in which she was tied up and raped by her husband. Simone's daughter discusses the physical and emotional abuse she suffered from her mother. Cigarette smoking throughout. In her journal, Simone talks about having to take sleeping pills in order to sleep while on grueling tours, and amphetamines in order to stay awake. Some profanity, including the "N" word and "f--k." 

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What's the story?

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? explores the tumultuous life and career of the iconic vocalist and pianist Nina Simone. It shows her beginnings in small-town North Carolina, where a white woman gave her lessons in her home in classical piano, and where Simone first experienced the systemic racism of "crossing the tracks" to the "white" part of town. It shows how racism directly changed the course of her career in music when she was denied entry into a prestigious music conservatory in Philadelphia due to her race, and how she turned to music as a way to make ends meet, changing from her given name Eustace Waymon to Nina Simone so her mother wouldn't find out that she was performing in night clubs in New Jersey. From there, her career began to take off, with her first hit in 1958, "I Loves You, Porgy." As her career continued to ascend, Simone met George, who would soon become both her husband and manager. The documentary shows how her career moved into a new direction after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the killing of four young Black girls in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Beginning with the single "Mississippi Goddam," Simone took an increasingly passionate and militant stance as an artist and activist as the 1960s continued with more unrest, protests, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In the midst of this, Simone struggled with the rigors of relentless touring, physical abuse from her husband, and increasingly erratic behavior that would now be viewed as mental illness. The documentary goes on to show how Simone left America for good, settling first in Liberia, then Switzerland, and then France, and how her career was once again on the upswing before her death in 2003. 

Is it any good?

This is a meticulous documentary exploring the complexities of Nina Simone's tumultuous career and personal life. Since racism led to the start of her career after she was denied acceptance to a prestigious music conservatory, her response to the injustices of racism came to define her music as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s protested these conditions and the acts of terrorism against African Americans. The documentary shows how Simone's immersion and active participation in the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with the 1963 single "Mississippi Goddam," was a direct reflection of her character and artistry, even as the music industry grew increasingly wary of her activism. While this was certainly the case, What Happened, Miss Simone? also explores the other factors that had a negative impact on her career, such as the tempestuous and abusive relationship she had with her husband/manager, the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by the rigors of touring, and her struggles with mental illness.

It's a "warts and all" documentary, drawing extensively on Simone's journal entries, and exploring how Simone's erratic behavior both on and off stage would eventually be viewed as the actions of someone who is bipolar. The political and the personal are seamlessly interwoven from beginning to end. What emerges is the compete portrait of a legendary musician who was also an uncompromised artist and outspoken activist and critic of American society who risked everything in order to follow both her muse and her conscience. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about documentaries. How does What Happened, Miss Simone? tell the story of Nina Simone's life and career? 

  • Who are some other examples of musicians, writers, filmmakers, and actors who also used their art to confront and address political and human rights issues?

  • Often, when celebrities, musicians, and athletes speak out against injustice or an issue of concern that falls beyond what they do for a living, some people tell them to "shut up and stick to [your job]." What are your thoughts on this? Should those in the spotlight speak out, protest, and express their convictions while in these spotlights, or is it their role to simply provide entertainment and a temporary escape for their fans? 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

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