Getting Close to Miss Simone

Liz Garbus talks her latest documentary, and finding the truth in her subjects

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When it was announced Liz Garbus was making a documentary about Nina Simone, we all moved to the edge of our seats. Not only did Simone change music, she had a strong voice in the political rights movement. There’s no better filmmaker to examine her story than Garbus.

Simone was in the spotlight, but also very much in the shadows for the latter part of her life. Garbus is no stranger to this complexity of celebrity. She’s known for her 2012 HBO documentary Love, Marilyn, which featured modern-day stars reading excerpts aloud from Monroe’s letters and journals. It was incredible to witness some of the secrets interlaced in the sex symbol’s life. Garbus’ other films include Bobby Fischer Against the World, Girlhood and The Execution of Wanda Jean. She has tackled an array of tough, touchy subjects, from the death penalty to the justice system to some of America’s most admired role models.

With What Happened, Miss Simone? Garbus tackles her subject with signature honesty. Through archival footage and only a select few talking heads, Simone’s rise to fame is chronicled. Perhaps some of the most influential elements of the film lie in Miss Simone’s own interviews. When she looks at the camera, both the passion and the growing discontent are present.

Paste had a chance to chat with Garbus about the project, which premiered last week on Netflix. Garbus revealed how she stays focused on the truth, even when so close to her subjects. She discussed the trust she gained from Simone’s daughter and how Nina’s struggles help us embrace our own: “She knows where you are—she’s been there.”

Paste: Nina passed away in 2003. Is that what sparked your interest in making the documentary?
Liz Garbus: I’ve always been a fan of Nina Simone’s music. Radical Media invited me to pitch my vision of the film as one of the potential directors. As I started to peel away the layers, I realized it was a phenomenally fascinating, multi-dimensional story.

Paste: This isn’t quite like Love, Marilyn, where you have a lot of people ultimately telling her story. Here you have a very small number of talking heads. Why did you choose that structure?
Garbus: When I started the film, I sort of did the reverse of the structure as the film I made about Bobby Fischer. We shot a lot of interviews and were stringing together the story through the storytellers and firsthand witnesses. With this film, we started with the archival [footage]. I spent six or seven months doing a deep dive, around-the-world search for everything Nina—every performance, audio interviews, film interviews, those diaries, pictures. I really wanted to tell the story as much as I could from the archival footage. The interviews came next. Of course Nina’s daughter was really important. I really wanted to keep it small, intimate.

Paste: I was almost shocked at how open Nina and her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, were both about the abuse they went through. For you, what was the most surprising thing you found?
Garbus: One thing that was very extraordinary, that I’m still impressed by, was her daughter’s openness and trust in me. Nina was a person who created such joy and beauty for her audiences but she also had so much struggle and pain. To trust a filmmaker with the darker sides of her mother while trusting that the empathy would still be there, I was very grateful for that trust she had with me.

Paste: Nina talks a lot about the pressure to stay out of the political realm as an artist. You’ve made political works previously, but with this film did you try to also stay out of that territory?
Garbus: No, not at all. I think her politics are front and center in the film in terms of her awakening in the civil rights movement, her involvement with Lorraine Hansberry [the playwright who inspired the Simone song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”], James Baldwin and her political alliances with the radicals, the Black Panthers in the civil rights movement. I think the film embraces her political awakening and deals with it.

Paste: The second part of that question: Nina talks a lot about the pressure not to become a political artist and because she did delve into that territory, it hurt her career. Have you ever dealt with that?
Garbus: Look, I mean I think Nina says that the pressure to not be political was a commercial pressure. Her husband that was her manager wanted her to nurture the commercial side of her career. Later in life, she does say that he punished her for her radicalism and the way she challenged the establishment. She was so raw and bold and doing things first. When you’re doing that I don’t think you really have a choice. She was a person who had a tool, and her tool was her music and her performance. She says in one of her interviews in the film in the late ’60s, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” It was a calling. For me, it’s a different time and the movement is very different, but I’ve never felt those things were choices. I’ve been drawn to subjects, whether it was incarceration or the death penalty or Nina Simone’s radicalism, and I just pursue them. I also feel like these films have gotten wonderful support. I’m definitely grateful for that.

Paste: You’re an artist making a film about an artist. I can’t help but think Nina’s asking questions that you yourself ask. Did you ever feel like your close relationship with her was going to taint the story? Maybe it was going to overshadow the truth?
Garbus: I feel very close to Nina, never having met her, but in some ways I know her as well as I know anyone who’s not one of my family members. You feel a love and loyalty towards [the subjects]. I also think it would be doing a disservice to whitewash any aspects to her life. I certainly had the material to grasp some of the harder parts of Nina’s life and still create empathy for her. I think we could understand some of Nina’s rage reading her letters and her diaries and understanding what she was going through. She knows where you are—she’s been there. I always wanted to approach it with that holistic view.

Paste: There’s a lot of talk now on documentary films walking that line between entertainment and truth. Have you ever been at that crossroads before?
Garbus: I think that the truth always has to be your guiding principle, the truth you find in your subject. My film about Nina Simone might be very different than another filmmaker’s film. Both of those versions of Nina are true. The complexity of Nina—there [were] oppositional forces at work at every stage in her career, a love for music and the burden of it all; a marriage she wanted to be in, but a marriage that was violent. She was constantly classical versus political music. How can I allow this complexity to live in a narrative space and still thread together a story that’s entertaining to my audience? With my editor and collaborator Josh Pearson, the idea was to allow the contradictions to exist throughout the life, and the viewers can sort out the question, “What happened, Miss Simone”?

Paste: You’ve done films about all types of heroes. Is Nina Simone a hero?
Garbus: She’s definitely a hero. Today so many artists are invoking her spirit as a guide of how an artist can be politically engaged and create great art that moves people and has a lasting effect. When I make films all the people, I feel like, are heroes. Everybody is a hero in their own story in their life. We all have to get through things. The films are looking at how we do that. We fail, we fail again, and then we fail better! I guess the films explore that process.

Paste: Given you spent so much time with Nina, in what ways did she change you?
Garbus: I think with Nina, the bar for influence is so high. Making a film about her was Olympic in that sense because her level of artistic output was so genius and honest. I just want to take a little iota of that and put it in my coffee every morning and aspire to that.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.