Nina Simone documentary shows how Netflix outshines HBO this summer

The Netflix documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" follows the life of the jazz artist and civil rights pioneer Nina Simone. She's pictured here in a 1968 interview.
The Netflix documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" follows the life of the jazz artist and civil rights pioneer Nina Simone. She's pictured here in a 1968 interview. ((Photo courtesy Sundance Institute/TNS.))

Last month in a piece that looked at how streaming was the way to go for the best in summertime TV, I highlighted a Netflix documentary on singer, pianist and civil rights pioneer Nina Simone.

With so much media to cover, I rarely go back and write about a piece a second time. But Netflix made "What Happened, Miss Simone?" available June 26, and I went back and watched it again this weekend. And I loved it even more than when I screened it in May. The film deserves more than a capsule review; I don't care how short attention spans are supposed to be in these 140-character times.


Regular readers of this blog know I love and respect great documentaries more than even great TV dramas, and this production from Liz Garbus is one of the best I have ever seen.

Give it five minutes, and you will be hooked. Give it the full running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, and you will be rocked, moved and enlightened about race in this country in a way 1,000 conversations on cable TV news channels couldn't start to touch today.


Four minutes into the film, viewers see archival film of a talk show interviewer in 1968 asking Simone what freedom means to her. At first, she tries to brush it off with a glib retort asking him what it means to him. It's clear she doesn't want to get cosmic.

But he pushes back and she does dig down, and finally she says, "I'll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really no fear. If I could just have that half my life, no fear."

And as she says "no fear" the second time, the soundtrack and screen fills with performance footage of her singing a gospel-driven version of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." I have heard no voice that captures the righteousness of the civil rights movement like Simone's in the stretch of performance Garbus shares with the audience.

And once the power and pain in Simone's voice has been established, Garbus brings the music down and uses it as a bed for Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer's daughter, to lay out the trajectory of her mother's career and life.

"My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, hands down," Kelly says. "But she paid a huge price. See, people seemed to think when she went out on that stage that was when she became Nina Simone. My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, and that's where it became a problem ...

"She was brilliant. She was loved. She was also a revolutionary," her daughter continues. "But when the show ended, everybody else went home. She was alone … with her own demons … full of anger and rage."

And then, the music comes back — more powerful even than it was before. The movement from the interview, to the performance, the daughter's assessment and back to the driving music is perfectly edited and paced.

The end result: a transcendent video moment. And the film has barely started.

The title for this stirring documentary comes from Maya Angelou, who wrote: "Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?"

This is the story of what happened with this brilliant performer, who grew up dreaming of and working toward a career in classical music.

I pay Garbus the highest compliment I can think of in saying her direction is worthy of Simone's art  — and Simone's pain.

I have raved about HBO documentaries for years. But this summer, I have seen nothing from the premium cable channel to match "What Happened, Miss Simone?" on Netflix.

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