Be Glad That You Are Free: On Nina Simone, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince
by Max S. Gordon
(This piece orginally appeared at The New Civil Rights Movement on May 15, 2016)
“Everybody is half dead. Everybody avoids everybody, all over the place, in most situations, most all the time. I know, I’m one of those everybodys…All I’m trying to do, all the time, is to open people up so they can feel themselves, so they can let themselves be open to somebody else.”
- Nina Simone
We forward in this generation, triumphantly. Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom? ’Cause all I ever have, redemption songs, redemption songs. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but our self can free our minds.
- Bob Marley, Redemption Song
“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything, because being black made me understand.”
- Lena Horne
I’m thinking on Nina — marveling at her, really — and what it took to make that woman. Cynthia Mort, the director of the recently released film Nina, felt the need to create a fictitious story based on the life of the artist Nina Simone. Her decision is confounding when one considers that the true details of Nina’s life are so much richer than Mort’s lie.
I’d originally planned to write about Nina and Lauryn Hill after the 2016 Grammys telecast, but I had an episode of “black madness”. Black madness is a form of depression specific to African-Americans and relates to what is happening with race in this country. One may contend that many white people are mad too, which is certainly a subject worth exploring. Black madness, however, can be located in the constant frustration one feels that America, at the most profound level, hasn’t changed enough to make a positive difference in the majority of black lives and possibly never will, and what that means for oneself, one’s countrymen and -women, and one’s children. The term micro-aggression has become popular to describe “minor” oppressive acts that take place in society every day. But when you’re on the receiving end of it, it’s all just aggression. Black madness is a response to living a life constantly subjected to violence — psychic, physical, social, political.
For those of us who find depression shameful, we may call this “feeling overwhelmed”. We may feel this all the time. Understanding and exploring my own black madness helps me better understand Lauryn Hill’s reported refusal to show up to the Grammys, or Kanye West’s perpetual and very public meltdowns. Azealia Banks, who in the past has been articulate about the pain of cultural appropriation and racism in the music industry, has been suspended from twitter because of her abusive tirades. A friend on Facebook is angry because a journalist puts Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston in a similar category, as if there were no connection between their deaths. But I think there is a conversation to be had about the black artist, racism, mental illness, addiction, and pain. When I think about Lauryn, Azealia and Kanye in particular, I am fascinated by their reactions to their art and their fame, and the overall experience of being black and an artist in America for this generation.
My own black madness flairs up at the announcement that Cynthia Mort’s film based on the life of Nina Simone has arrived in theaters after years of controversy over Zoe Saldana’s wearing blackface for the part. Don Cheadle announces in interviews that in order to get his film on Miles Davis made, he had to write a white character into the script. It takes a little black girl writing President Obama a letter for him to travel to Flint, a glorified publicity stunt, as the water crisis there continues. (He should have stayed home and just sent her new pipes.) He is welcomed with open arms, but he seems dissociated, comedic, as if he has no idea how grave the situation is, as if Flint were just a bad dream we are all having. The water remains undrinkable, toxic. Watching his press conference, one suspects that the only black life that truly matters to him is his own.
And finally, the Treasury Department has announced that in four years Harriet Tubman, our black Moses and shining revolutionary hero, who defied a system that valued black human life only as property, who led over three hundred people to freedom — never caught! — will now be the new face, captured, on U.S. twenty-dollar bills. I remind myself that Harriet isn’t in this, that her work stands by itself and that she “won”, even when it feels spiritually as if a slavemaster is somewhere having the last laugh. In other news, George Zimmerman attempts to auction off the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin.
Blacks certainly don’t have the monopoly on madness. There is “queer madness”, of course. A man I met just the other day at the gym, a journalist, shared with me the survivor’s guilt he still feels over the deaths of his friends during the AIDS crisis in the Eighties. After attending a funeral every week for months, he shut down, then broke down. I turn on the television and the news reports the deaths of two transgender women of color killed within a forty-eight hour period. Their murders make for sensational TV, but are they properly grieved? Can you grieve what you never claimed? State lawmakers continue to pass legislation that says that women and men in the transgender community aren’t human — not even deserving to use the bathroom with dignity.
“Gender madness” may arise from watching men, usually Republican and white, arguing about abortion and overturning Roe Vs. Wade, a decision that will have dire consequences for all women, but most specifically poor women of color. The hardliners, smug in TV interviews, pride themselves on being political purists for the “unborn”, anti-choice even in cases of incest and rape. Women still make less money than men. Posters for the upcoming adventure/fantasy movie X-Men: Apocalpyse show a male character choking a female half his size, his hand gripped around her throat as she holds his arm, head back, pleading for release. They are at subway entrances and outside movie theaters throughout the city, seen by thousands of children. Writer and activist Stacy Parker Le Melle wryly observes, “Just another day in New York where you see an ad with a woman getting choked. But she’s blue and from a comic book so it’s okay.”
We barely recognize our “class madness”; stepping over the homeless person in the street on our way to our second five-dollar cup of coffee, and irritated, not because of the social injustice that surrounds us, but because we are late for work. Homelessness is just another political “issue”, until you yourself are walking those mean streets. A man I know was living in shelters for months last year and didn’t tell any of our friends because he was simply too ashamed.
And then there is a special madness for all of us that flares up around election times. I’m addicted to watching the news about the presidential race, as Donald Trump moves closer to the presidency. As a child of the Seventies, I can’t help but feel that my generation was supposed to be different — kinder, braver, smarter. An American man admittedly too long in my own extended post-adolescence, I’m looking for adults, real adults on the political landscape, and the man who may next lead our country is an overgrown child, throwing his toys and shaking his fist, bullying everyone on the playground. He is profane, arrogant, narcissistic, seemingly unstoppable, and adept at social media. He calls for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States while the newly elected mayor of London is a Muslim man. Trump now claims the ban was only a “suggestion”, but his suggestion has already led to greater violence and hatred towards Muslim-Americans. There is no way to reconcile the insanity we live with now.
Republican candidates shake their bibles in my face and threaten to take away my civil rights as a gay man while a famous athlete loses a multi-million dollar endorsement for saying that homosexuals are “worse” than animals and should be killed. ISIS executes a 14-year-old boy for the crime of listening to pop music, which may be their code for gay, as they hurl gay men off buildings to their deaths, upholding what they claim is “religious law”. When and how did masculinity, East and West, get so out of hand on the planet? Where do these men come from, who makes them, and what is happening all over the world to our beautiful boys?
I think about their hatred for me, the politician’s promise, the preacher’s frown. I’ve never seriously considered hurling myself in front of a train or bus, but I have been self-destructive, negligent with myself, sometimes dangerously so. I have had friends who have been institutionalized or who have institutionalized themselves; and then there are the suicide attempts that are uncomfortable to talk about so you talk about movies or politics instead; the friend who admitted recently that if it weren’t for his younger brother and the shame it would bring to his living relatives, he would have killed himself years ago. And the slow deaths: the untreated addictions. And the even slower deaths, lives marking time, not feeling worthy enough to pursue a lifelong dream, or choosing to isolate, upholding impossible standards of perfection in the hope of one day being perfect enough just to breathe. A life constricted by shame — perfection finally realized one day in the best damn casket money can buy.
Someone will read this who may be an artist, who understands what it means to walk out the front door and deal with all the madness of the world — black, queer, gender and class. Yet she wills herself to create. And despite a desire to self-destruct, or to take a gun and destroy, she instead finds the generosity to say “Good Morning” to passersby. Or perhaps she starts a movement.
In March of 2015, I went to see Lauryn Hill in concert. She was playing a few blocks from where I live in Harlem. A friend of mine and I had just had a conversation about who the Nina Simone of our generation was, and we agreed on Lauryn Hill. Lauryn, at times and arguably more than any artist alive, has Nina’s greatness, her pain, the erratic reputation, her political consciousness, and her fearlessness. And, as with Nina, when people are impatient with Lauryn or exasperated with her choices, they use a cruel shorthand: she’s crazy. And she’s been to jail.
After a few uneven performances on her come-back tour, an article by Stephan Schumaker in 2014 was titled “It’s Time To Finally Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill”, and concluded, “She used to be great. I used to love her. Not anymore.” (Lauryn was in the news last week for purportedly arriving two and a half hours late to her amphitheater show in Atlanta. Because of the strict curfew, the show was less than forty minutes long.) Schumaker’s arguments about Lauryn’s behavior at concerts, her familial pressures, meltdowns and disappointed audiences were persuasive, but as with Nina and her “black madness”, I also knew there was more to the story. I knew if I went to see Lauryn that, because of her relationship to her art and her integrity as an artist, she would move me. The venue was small, and I wondered if maybe she was feeling vulnerable and wanted her audience closer to her. If the concert happened at all, there would be the possibility of the kind of magic that can only come from a genius, no matter how disturbed that genius may be. And I was in need of healing. I had to be there.
On the night of the performance, the line moved fairly quickly and I was inside, in a space that seemed more suited for experimental theater than for a performance by a multi-Grammy-award-winning singer and, for some, a legend. The stage was simple — a modest bench for the performer, with colored lights that melded the stage seamlessly with the seats in the audience. There was a concession area for drinks and food, and people had already secured all the tables near the front. I found a place to stand in the back as the room filled, and waited for the show to begin.
Perusing the room, I saw an advertisement for a movie which Lauryn was involved in, a documentary called Concerning Violence and inspired by Frantz Fanon’s Black Faces, White Masks with “narration by Ms. Lauryn Hill”. Just as I thought “I’ll have to check that out sometime”, a screen rolled down in front of us. I imagined that we were going to be shown a preview. The room filled with the sound of a plane or helicopter, rapid gunfire, chaos, and Lauryn’s familiar voice: “Colonialism is not a thinking machine. Nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state. And it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” I thought of Nina, wanting to pick up a gun after the murder of Medgar Evers and the 1964 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed black four girls, writing “Mississippi Goddam” instead. I gave Lauryn credit — this wasn’t the usual opening to a pop star’s concert. Five minutes passed, then ten, and it became clear, as I observed the stricken faces around me, that we were being shown the full length, ninety-minute film.
Trapped in Lauryn’s audience and willing an out-of-body experience, I thought of fan loyalty and recalled seeing Sly Stone in concert in 2007, in Bournemouth, England. I was in London at the time and saw an advertisement in the Tube station that said Sly and The Family Stone were playing at the coastal town. Truthfully, I would have gone to the moon to see Sly, if only to hear “If You Want Me To Stay” sung live. (I’ve argued before that I feel it may be one of the greatest examples in history of the black American blues song.) So the following weekend, my partner and I got into the car, drove to the coast, and went to the concert. The venue was no bigger, it seemed, than a high-school auditorium, there were no seats to speak of, and we stood for two and a half hours through two opening acts, waiting for the show to begin.
When they finally arrived, The Family Stone was definitely ready to give us a good time, but Sly was a mess, rushing from one end of the stage to the other, with a manic grin on his face. He disappeared during songs, returning again only moments before they were over. His rendition of “If You Want Me To Stay” was inaudible, which destroyed me, and at one point, Sly went backstage, returned with that same grin, and threw a handful of grapes at the crowd. One ricocheted off the head of my neighbor, an unsmiling white man in a blue suit. (That grape might have been strategic; he looked like an entertainment lawyer.) Sly, a wizened shadow of his former self in a baseball cap, resembled a traumatized parakeet in a house fire, and he was throwing grapes. And this was my idol.
When the concert ended, despite wild applause from the audience, I heard some grumbles and cries for refunds aimed at Sly. I knew I should have been outraged by his behavior, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t squeeze out any hate for him. I’d just seen Sly Stone, the man who wrote the dark, beautiful masterpiece “There’s A Riot Going On.” And even if he was a disaster that night, the love in his music, what he had created, what it meant in my life, and hearing it live — “I Want To Take You Higher”, “Stand” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” — was overpowering for me.
I tried to extend the same love to Lauryn, but I had a few reservations. While I enjoy Lauryn’s music greatly and admire her artistry, I’ve also, at times, been a reluctant fan, not entirely sure where I fit in as a gay man with what I sometimes suspect is an underlying fundamentalism — religious or political — in her ideology. It was this ideology that I questioned now, as her film ground on.
Lauryn’s movie recalled one of those outdated films we used to watch in grade school, the kind that came in cans, fed into film projectors on rainy days. And Lauryn’s audience responded in kind; there were titters, gasps and outright laughter, like an unruly class with a substitute teacher. Lauryn’s voice was narrating over images that looked to be forty or fifty years old — old film stock suggesting 1960’s National Geographic magazines; from the dusty exteriors and huts we were to assume we were in “Africa”. The specific details are fuzzy, but you know the kind of thing: Black mothers with sagging breasts carrying baskets on their heads; old men chewing on twigs and staring into oblivion because they are “noble” and “wise” and not just bored; someone with a spear stabs a cow for absolutely no reason; a group of handsome village men stand around in loincloths chatting about tribal concerns and you’re not supposed to be aroused by the one with the biggest “cloth” because this is “educational”; and a blonde woman with a British or South African accent tells an interviewer that she’d like to change her colonialist ways but it’s hard when you’ve been used to “a certain way of life.”
Something important was obviously going on, but it was the wrong time, the wrong place. The audience around me, black and sassy, started making jokes like, “Lauryn, you really LOST ONE here, girl,” and “I’m being MISEDUCATED right now, Ms. Hill.” A white woman next to me turned and said to my rowdy group in desperation, “Please be quiet! This is important and you might learn something.” I wish one of us had said, “We’re learning something right now about colonization, being told to shut up by a white person on 135th Street in Harlem.”
The film finally ended, and an advertisement flashed with a picture of a can of Coca-Cola and popcorn, reminding us not to forget to use our American Express card at the snack bar. I considered the irony of this and thought about black madness and Lauryn’s complicated relationship with the music industry. I understand the purity of what she wants to give us, the truth she is telling us in songs like “Black Rage”. And yet the reality for her, and why she may choose to sabotage her career, is that the music business and the Grammys themselves are just so much junk food at the snack bar — paid for with an American Express card.
A DJ played for another hour, and after a few people left in frustration or to relieve a babysitter, Lauryn finally appeared, and suddenly my irritation and the pain in my tired legs evaporated. Like Nina, Lauryn was in full control, constantly monitoring the sounds levels, precise in what she wanted from her band. The way she was positioned on the stage, with her fox wrap around her neck, her shiny diamond earrings, ruby lipstick and short afro, she looked like a glamorous black woman waiting for the bus during the Civil Rights Movement.
But what I will always remember from that night was Lauryn singing “To Zion”. There was a space near the back and a black woman began dancing. No one was dancing with her, but that didn’t seem to matter. She embraced herself, enraptured by the warmth of the sound, singing every lyric in her own private reverie. I looked at her body, and thought, We don’t usually see women this size dancing in public. There was no apology in her movements, no self-consciousness whatsoever. Lauryn was singing her song, and in the dusky blue lights that surrounded her, she was indeed a wonder — it was as if nothing in that moment could harm her. I could only speculate from what I observed, but it seemed to me that Lauryn’s music had the power to bring some black women to a place of joy they’d known as girls, and yet was, at the same time, a complete fulfillment of adult black womanhood.
That’s when I realized that I forgave Lauryn for the movie and the waiting, and understood that nothing was more important than what she was able to create in that moment for us with her music: sanctuary. There were several women in the audience who were also moved, and although they couldn’t dance freely, they held their heads back, eyes closed, singing with Lauryn, as if they all shared a common anthem. Maybe all her “difficulties” were worth it if it brought us to this place. On some level, Lauryn must have understood her own black madness, as she sang, “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind”. I thought of the stereotype of the crazy black female, of Nina, and a world of media images and male comics who found humor in portrayals of black women as angry, combative, aggressive, mean — of what it meant always to have to fight back to survive; fighting for everyone, including the men who condemn you, and then being punished for it. How you just get tired. In the intimate space Lauryn created, that burden seemed, at least for a few hours, lifted. One woman didn’t sing along, but kept brushing away tears with the edge of her hand. I watched the nodding heads and knew that I recognized this tableau from somewhere: it was the same look on the women’s faces in a college auditorium filled with black students where Nina performed “Young, Gifted and Black”. It was the relief that comes from finally being heard, the expansion of having your story told, and told right. In that moment I realized Lauryn was, is, our Nina, and that an artist who is true to her vision can save lives.
Cynthia Mort’s Nina, as anticipated, arrives in theaters an unmitigated disaster. One leaves the film not wanting to review it, but rather to request an autopsy. While no one can reverse what happened, it is still important to document it, to unpack it thoroughly so that, one hopes, it never happens again.
My suspicion is that while everyone involved may have had a niggling sense during filming that something wasn’t quite right, they barreled through anyway, led by an extraordinary sense of entitlement or collective self-deception. Eventually, and with the help of social media’s reaction, the immensity of what had occurred finally seeped in. Mort, outraged over the final cut after a protracted legal battle with the film’s producers, asked that her name be taken off the film. But even if there exists somewhere a cut that varies from the one I saw, it is impossible for the company to have shaped a new film from what wasn’t already there. In other words, Mort is fully responsible for what is on the screen, and will hopefully be haunted by her creation for as long as audiences have to experience Zoe Saldana as a singing Tootsie-Roll called Nina.
Saldana, an American actress, is Puerto Rican and black with light skin. She made comments about her racial identity, prior to accepting the role of Nina, in an interview she gave to BET in 2013, where she expressed her frustration at being labeled or put in a box because of race. “I literally run away from people that use words like ethnic. It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color ’cause in reality people aren’t white.” Watching her performance in Mort’s film, I felt that Saldana was working something out psychologically by getting into “black drag”, the way actors are encouraged to mine their psychological fields in Strasberg’s Method, or therapy groups where one sits across from an empty chair and yells at “Mom”. At one point in the movie Saldana screamed, “I am a black woman, motherfucker!” or something similar. A couple next to me in the theater stood up and left.
The problem is that playing Nina isn’t on-the-job training. It requires the skill of a titan, especially with a script as lacking in nuance as Mort’s. Mort was also co-writer and director of the Jody Foster vehicle, 2007’s The Brave One. I had a visceral reaction towards that vigilante film, found it morally dubious and thoroughly despised it. When you look up The Brave One, Wikipedia cross-references Bernhard Goetz, Death Wish, and Eye for an Eye. (I don’t want Nina in this woman’s hands!)
Nina as a film isn’t unlike The Iron Lady, and for many reasons which will not all be enumerated here, Lady is comparably offensive. Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher, the movie isn’t about a woman who reaches great heights in government and rules (or bullies) a nation, but rather the story of an old woman whose reality is crumbling because of her dementia. The film is cowardly for what it leaves out — only in brief moments do we see the consequences of Thatcher’s policies, or her authority on the world stage. It is an apolitical movie and ultimately an ugly one; determined not to offend anyone by revealing its subject, it becomes only a showcase for Meryl Streep’s riveting impersonation. Thatcher spends most of the movie “interacting” with her deceased husband, Denis. A similar movie about any man in politics — a film about Gerald Ford, for example, in which he spent most of his screen time pacing the floor over his wife’s alcoholism — would be laughed off the screen.
But The Iron Lady did have Meryl Streep, and Nina needs a great actress to inhabit the role, an actress bold and experienced enough to push the script aside and to tell the director, “Just stay out of my way and turn the camera on when I’m ready. I’ve got this.” Viola Davis has this kind of talent and might have told us more about Nina’s life by walking across the stage and sitting down at a piano than the entirety of Mort’s script ever could. Zoe Saldana gives the role the ol’ college try, but someone has dropped her into an ocean with sharks, and where we need an Olympic swimmer, she’s dog-paddling in water-wings. Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone is like Sarah Michelle Gellar as Margaret Thatcher.
Zoe might have had a minor triumph in a meditation on Nina, perhaps a stage play called Four Women, in which she could have played one aspect of Nina’s experience, a young Nina fighting to be respected in the industry. It has been revealed by a close confidant of Nina’s that, when asked who she believed could play her in a film, she said, “Grace Kelly”. It is clear from this that Nina either had a great sense of humor or, as I prefer to believe, was open to an archetypal and not necessarily a literal interpretation of her life. (Nina was as regal, private, and lonely at times as Kelly was.) Perhaps a talented writer and director could realize this impressionistic “I’m Every Woman” take on Nina.
But there is also something to be said, in fact insisted on, for a dark-skinned actress, and, if possible, an actual musician and singer, to inhabit this role. Nina, for those of us who feel that her music still sustains us through persecutions, is a crowning achievement in American artistry and black American radical consciousness. Her blackness was hard-won — she fought for it every day of her life — and is deeper and more profound than a prosthetic nose and fudge-colored foundation.
Instead of enhancing her performance, the make-up is a fortress surrounding Saldana, and most actresses, even ones with great abilities, might find it near impossible to project any emotion from behind it. What is offensive is that the make-up is so thick that it portrays Nina as a black female Frankenstein. (My partner, watching the performance through his fingers, said, “This is a horror film.”)
Saldana is not Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, who, in make-up, dress and heels was still human and vulnerable. In Mort’s hands, Nina Simone belongs in the theater of the grotesque. Certain roles call for extensive transformations: John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Charlize Theron in Monster, Eric Stolz as Rocky Dennis in Mask, Cicely Tyson’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman. These performances are emotionally nuanced: the make-up and transformations enhance, inform. Ten minutes into Nina, however, I thought of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. I could never completely surrender to that film because the make-up seemed porcine and oppressive, and I kept thinking, “How can Robin Williams breath under there?” But you don’t need to surrender to Mrs. Doubtfire in the way that you should in a film about Nina Simone. Scenes that should play for pathos are upstaged by an audience’s unsettled curiosity: “How did they keep that make-up from coming off in the pool scene?” Or as one reviewer commented: “Is she going to get make-up on those sheets?” Nina’s music becomes an afterthought, her life reduced to spectacle, as she is dragged again through the marketplace, on display at the carnival, a Hottentot Venus. There is a precedent for Mort’s violation.
Supporting characters, of which there are few, are of little help. From the sumptuous feast that was Nina’s life and legend, Mort chooses to serve us one singular dish, and it’s corn: Nina, after a hospitalization, asks her nurse, Clifton Henderson, to come and live with her in France. There is the suggestion of an unrequited May-December romance, but finally, through his help and loving care, Clifton helps Nina make a successful comeback.
Clifton Henderson, the “love interest” in Nina was, by all accounts I’ve read, a gay man, and while he is loyal to Nina in the film, there were questions about the real Henderson as a caretaker, questions related to neglect and financial mismanagement. It is highly suspect that this particular area of Nina’s life and this specific character would be the emphasis of her cinematic biography — someone whom history recalls as merely a footnote. David Oyelowo does the best that he can with what he’s given, but Clifton Henderson is a non-role. Filmed in 2012 before Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Oyelowo plays his scenes as if he has his cell phone on in his pocket, waiting for the agent to confirm he’ll be playing Martin Luther King. Mike Epps is Richard Pryor for about five minutes of screen time, and tells us how hard life is with multiple sclerosis after having burned himself up by freebasing cocaine. Nothing else is revealed about his character, and the scene ends. The script was written by Google. In another scene, we are introduced to New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She sits beside Nina’s piano, encouraging Nina to write “Young, Gifted and Black”, even though the song was written as a tribute to Hansberry’s memory many years after her death. No-one has done her homework. A scene in which Nina is supposed to be playing a “Woodstock” -type crowd in the 1960s, ends up looking like a rained-out church picnic.
If you didn’t know Nina before the movie you would think she got to the top of industry playing auto shows — not Carnegie Hall. Finally, the film feels as if it were made by someone to whom Nina owed money when she died. She would never have stood for this slovenliness in her own work, which demands the question: can just anyone just grab a pen or start typing a screenplay and write about an artist’s life? Whom does Nina belong to, and who has a right to claim her? Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his piece “On Nina Simone’s Face, Zoe Saldana and the Realities of Blackness” for The Atlantic: “We are talking about people who think it is fine to profit off her music while heedlessly contributing to the kind of pain that brought that music into being…Today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.”
Making films is risky. Sometimes creative people honestly miscalculate — look at M. Night Shyamalan’s career — but rarely on this grand a scale. I’d love to see Mort issue an apology, but perhaps she’s not sorry at all, and somewhere she secretly feels vindicated, believing her intentions were pure and her producers failed her. An article on Buzzfeed by Kate Aurthur about the film claims that Mort actually met Nina personally. My question to Mort would be, “If you weren’t sure whether your script was racist, why didn’t you bother to find out? When the family begged you not to do this movie, did you consider their reasons why? What in Nina’s story did you feel you needed to tell so urgently, that all other practical and aesthetic considerations were discarded along the way? And ultimately, did you love her? Did you love her? I know you chose her, Cynthia, but would Nina have chosen you?”
One of the greatest casualties of racism — and this is true for all of us, black and white — is what it does to the imagination. Nina knew what America thought of her, and of black women. Her thoughts can be found in the lyrics of her masterpiece “Four Women”, in the song “Brown Baby”, and in her performance of the poem “No Images”, written by William Waring Cuney and sung years later by the acapella group Sweet Honey In the Rock:
She does not know
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory.
If she could dance
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dishwater gives back no images.
One of Nina’s greatest achievements was how she imagined herself. She broke the spell that racism casts, or rather, she turned the psychological weapons aimed against her and put a spell on us — leading us to her place of black enchantment. In a world that was determined to underestimate her because of race and gender, she achieved a spectacular place for herself. And she protected her art as a mother lion guards her cubs. Nina’s physical appearance is critical to her legend because she championed for herself a vibrant sexuality and charisma, as a dark skinned woman, as a woman who some said had “manly” features and who tried to de-sexualize her and strip her of her power. She played the piano with both tenderness and thunderous intensity and was capable of astonishing concentration. Her work on stage was physically demanding and you responded in kind — she wore you out. And because Nina knew herself, and her authority as an artist was absolute, we could know ourselves, we could rebel with her and define ourselves as we liked. Whether she strutted across the stage, mike in hand, her energy vibrant and sparkling, or coaxed deep emotion from her piano, her voice sometimes soothing, sometimes shouting in protest and outrage, one could tell: Nina was a witch, and she was deeply, sensuously, confidently black, and more than a little dangerous. Her concerts held the possibility of the true discovery which Miles Davis described when he spoke of Charlie Parker. Anything might happen in the moment, which was scary and electrifying; and Nina’s mental illness may have pushed the boundaries even further. She came at us full-on and gave us everything she had. Yet it wasn’t sloppy — you knew you were in the hands of a master.
Nina as archetype resists commodification and exploitation, which means that her image and music, even after death, threaten our culture of greed, right down to its capitalist core. In another era, there would have been a bounty on her head, as there was on Harriet’s. This doesn’t mean that Nina didn’t want to be paid for her work. It means that the integrity of her art wasn’t for sale. Nina may have been something different in her romantic relationships, but she wasn’t co-dependent in her relationship to us, her audience. She knew her worth, which is why she became a symbol of freedom during the Civil Rights Movement.
This is why everyone wants a piece of Nina, why we use her image and her music as a radical shorthand. But unlike most of us, Nina paid a price in her life that most artists will never pay. Nina left blood on the piano keys, she had breakdowns, lovers left her, men beat her, a country refused to acknowledge her genius. We enjoy the peacock’s feathers, but she ate the thorns. That’s why it seems unfair to pull her out of the cabinet any time we feel like it, adding her life’s work to spice up dishes that just ain’t working by themselves.
Nina makes an appearance, for example, in Beyoncé’s recently released Lemonade. Fashioned as a radical pop-culture statement on black female womanhood, victimization, and empowerment, Lemonade is stunning viewing at times, mesmerizing and, one could argue, a deepening of Beyoncé’s talent and vision as an artist. (Lemonade has been called pioneering and brave, but it could never exist without the popularity of Black Lives Matter. Beyoncé studies polls like Hillary Clinton.) She speaks the words of Lemonade (attributed to the work of Somali poet Warsan Shire) like a sermon or a benediction. The mood the film creates is stirring and seemingly profound, and yet the extraordinary technique can’t keep the final line below from being jarring and ultimately laughable.
“I tried to change. Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake. Fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word…Went to the basement, confessed my sins, and was baptized in a river…I threw myself into a volcano. I drank the blood and drank the wine. I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God…I grew thickened skin on my feet, I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know … Are you cheating on me?”
Beyoncé had me in a trance halfway through Lemonade until the camera settled on Nina’s album Silk and Soul, shown beside a turntable, her voice heard faintly, hauntingly in the background. I know why she is there: Lemonade traffics in images of black mysticism, and Nina was a black mystic. The problem is that Beyoncé isn’t. Black women populate Beyoncé’s Lemonade, yet there are very few interactions between black women, and between black women and Beyoncé. (In Lemonade, women are “sisters” the same way that the somnambulant guitar-strumming models in Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ video were “sisters.”) They frame her, they support her, and writhe at her feet, as Serena Williams does during the song “Sorry”, while Beyoncé sits on her throne. They never penetrate, never reach Beyoncé the star. Beyoncé is attracted to Nina, we all are, but she doesn’t seem to understand the difference between glory, which Nina had, and glorification, which is required when one genuflects at Beyoncé’s altar. (A friend of mine asks, as we are deconstructing Lemonade, “Are we just jealous of her?” I find myself replying: “Yes, of course we are. We are supposed to be. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t right.”)
In a scene in which Beyoncé shows the mothers of victims of police brutality and racist violence — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner — she stages a mini-concert. The mothers, Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr, sit in the front row and Beyoncé, blonder than ever in a white dress, sings to them. It is a tension never resolved in Beyoncé’s work — she seems to crave blackness and a black community’s embrace, but refuses to subvert the patriarchal white gaze that always surrounds her like a halo. She affirms she’s black, and her lyrics say she’s black, but the images reveal her true intention. She’s always Miss Ann in relationship to the other black women, a plantation mistress. A benign Miss Ann, but still.
It finally became clear what Beyoncé was up to, what she’s always up to, in a brief segment in Lemonade on mothers and daughters. A young, dark-skinned girl of about four or five watches Beyoncé dressing for the day, the way that daughters have watched their mothers at their make-up tables since time immemorial. The difference is that the look on the daughter’s face is wistful, there is longing in her eyes, for connection. Beyoncé, as the beautiful mother, on the other hand, is distracted, doesn’t interact with her at all: there is no wink, or smile, or offer to share her lipstick and make her daughter pretty too. Beyoncé exists to be seen, to be lusted after, but it’s grotesque when she makes a child do it. That’s when I became outraged at Lemonade and realized it was just a long commercial, however gorgeous, for the same thing all commercials encourage: the cult of envy.
The black women and men in Lemonade, while beautifully filmed, suggest “poverty porn”, their faces often staring into the camera as we evaluate them. They never stare at each other. No one exists except in her relationship to Beyoncé. I wanted Beyoncé to come down off her podium in her white dress and wash the feet of the black women who had lost their sons. I wanted Beyoncé, their daughter, to show us, with all her advantages, and privilege, and power, what it means to actually serve someone other than yourself. Beyoncé uses African imagery throughout Lemonade and suggests an African community, a Southern black community, and even, at one point, an actual commune, but in the end there is no community with Beyoncé — there are only the masses and their relationship to her. We tolerate her humiliating us because, like Bill Cosby and President Obama, her “anti-niggerness” seems the perfect anti-dote to a community devastated by the lasting effects and shame of slavery. Beyoncé makes whiteness attainable, and she takes her place at the center, even when she demands that we keep our blacks hands off her.
Unlike true black transformational works which give your soul a lift, there is a hollowness and abyss at Beyoncé’s core as an artist — everything is sacrificed to the megalomania of the pop star. And if you are willing to capitulate to her, there is a place for you in her world. This is one of the reasons why, I imagine, she has never released a statement taming her BeyHive, the staunch defenders who have crossed over at times into a dangerous, fanatical worship. I suspect on some level it thrills her, as the violence against protesters thrills Donald Trump. Beyoncé is very clear about her intention in one song: in “Formation” she sings, “Your revenge is your paper”, referring to money. I am reminded in bell hooks’ recent article on Lemonade, “Moving Beyond Pain” that Beyoncé shrewdly wears a hoodie in the opening section of the film, anticipating her soon-to-be-launched line of sportswear, Ivy Park.
And if Beyoncé wants that for herself and her career — the product placement, the bond which pathological narcissism creates with fans — that’s fine. But why drag Nina into it, Nina who served her community and who wrote, “(Why?) The King of Love Is Dead” for Dr. King after his assassination, who, spent after the concerts she performed on college campuses still found the time to talk to students because “they need me,” Nina who told people that she took the movement into the studio every time she recorded, knowing what another Nina Simone song meant to tired marching feet, to heads bashed by police brutality, to jailed protesters. “At this time I must stretch to reach my fullest potential,” Nina said in an interview with Maya Angelou for Redbook in 1970. “ I must address myself to the needs of my people…My people need inspiration.”
Beyoncé has no idea of the subversive power of the voodoo imagery she’s invoking and what it stirs up in consciousness, or how deeply wrong it is to use Nina’s legacy to feed the cult of her own personality or her greed. Or perhaps Beyoncé has every idea and doesn’t care. One wants to say to her: You have everything — beauty, wealth, awards, fame, all the world’s attention; do you have to have Nina’s legacy too? But that’s the thing about capitalism, as filmmaker Iyatunde Folayan reminds us; it always wants more. My point, finally, is this: white artists aren’t the only ones exploiting Nina Simone.
Cynthia Mort’s Nina is negligible and after its dismal box office will hopefully crawl away to a dark place, like a wounded animal that just wants to be left alone to die. But what isn’t negligible is Hollywood’s presumption about the black artist, and the arrogance and entitlement that led to the debacle which is Nina. Sedat Pakay, director, photographer and close friend of James Baldwin confirmed to me that when Baldwin was writing the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the studio was seriously considering actor Charleton Heston — in “blackface” — for the part. (Baldwin eventually dropped the project, according to his biographer David Leeming, because he didn’t want to be party to “a second assassination.”)
It is therefore safe to assume, as there has been a recent string of these movies — from “Whitney” on Lifetime, to bio-pics on James Brown and Miles — that another disappointing film about a black musician will happen again, and soon. It has just been announced that a film about the life of Dionne Warwick is currently in development.
Nina Simone’s music has been making the rounds on television and movies lately. She’s everywhere. During the chase scene in the recent TV movie The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, we hear Nina singing, “I Shall Be Released.” The violent, politically problematic television show Scandal borrows Nina’s music often, including songs like “Wild Is The Wind,” “Take Me To the Water” and last season, as the Republican president and his ex-chief of staff battled it out, Nina was in the background crooning “Feeling Good”. The real scandal on the show is what Shonda Rhimes is doing to our associations with classic black music and the work of black artists.
Nina is an artist who confers cool and chic on the writer or filmmaker who associates with her. In many ways, given her great discipline and extraordinary talent, her work remains sublime, still as fresh as it was during her greatest periods. Marilyn Monroe has the same effect: despite the hundreds of articles and books written on Monroe, new biographies end up on bestseller lists because of her enormous star power and reining beauty; Marilyn makes more in death than many stars still living.
Liz Garbus, Nina’s recent biographer, and biographer of Marilyn Monroe (Love, Marilyn), knows this and picks her subjects wisely, for what they bestow on her as a filmmaker. Garbus definitely has good taste. What she doesn’t have, in Nina’s case, is a good film. When I finished watching, What Happened, Miss Simone? the real question on my mind was, “What Happened, Miss Garbus?”
Lauded by critics and even nominated for an Academy award, Garbus’ film is a series of missed opportunities and letdowns, beginning with the dreary title, What Happened, Miss Simone? Taken from the Maya Angelou article, the question has a different resonance when taken out of context and means something quite different when asked by one black woman artist to another. (What happened, Miss Simone becomes Baby, who did this to you and what do you need to make you whole?) I’m not saying that a white filmmaker can’t honor Nina — in fact, some months after Garbus’ film was released, a white filmmaker did — but the title is provocative, and, I believe, unfairly confrontational. Maya can ask What Happened, Miss Simone? Garbus can’t.
There are several posters advertising the film, but the one I see on Netflix is unflattering. Nina does not appear triumphant, but dispirited, downtrodden, sullen. The implication from the title is not unlike the tone of the questions Clifton asks in Cynthia Mort’s film after Nina is hospitalized for mental illness — what happened to your career, why did you let yourself go?
Now let’s be clear: what happened to Nina Simone is a great goddamn question –not for Nina to answer, but for us. Garbus’ question puts the onus on Nina to answer to us, when it is actually we who owe her an explanation. After all the grace and beauty she shared with us, after being ripped off by record companies and bootleggers and denied awards, like so many black artists in this country she had to go to Europe and Africa to be shown a modicum of the respect she deserved. The question is offensive and misplaced: Nina did her work, leave her alone. The interrogation should be aimed at a country that felt the need to punish her. If we ask, “What happened, Miss Simone?” then we also have to explore the price the black artist has to pay in America to tell the truth, and whether it is too high. Can one be an artist in America, and black, and not descend into madness? Can anyone, and in particular, the sensitive artist, ever really “adjust” to racism, and isn’t a breakdown the most honest response one could have to the horror of too many black American lives?
It is easy to be seduced by the film; it looks well made, and having had the permission of Nina’s estate, Garbus was given access to some journals, photos and clips not been seen before, including an interview with Nina’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly (who performs under the name Simone). I respect Ms. Kelly’s memories and her personal insights into her mother’s life, but a few minutes into the film I suspected we were in trouble when Simone announced, “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time,” and I thought, “No, actually Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest entertainers of all time; your mother was a high priestess, a black sorceress who energized and provided the inspiration for one of the greatest Civil Rights Movements in history.” Reducing Nina to her value as an “entertainer” undermines her: entertainers work the room, but Nina was possessed onstage, her concerts at times had the concentration of séances.
Nina should be remembered by family, family who should be free to speak truthfully about the film’s subject, warts and all. But family can sometimes be too close, or have their own agendas in documentary form. We need personal memory, yes, but we also need Nina contextualized, we need talking heads with degrees who have spent their lives studying her and the milieu she comes from to help us understand where the civil rights movement was when she entered, what and who politicized her, what her early roots were, and what helped shape her revolutionary consciousness. Handing a filmmaker a family scrapbook and a roll of film ain’t gonna get it.
Andy Stroud, Nina’s ex-husband and business manager, has a prominent role in Garbus’ documentary — deeply disturbing given his violent and cruel behavior towards her. Nina mentions more than once in recorded interviews that she was afraid of her husband. Garbus includes excerpts from Nina’s personal diary: “The beatings, they destroy everything within me. I hate him.”
If you know Nina’s life, then you may recall the incident when, drunk and jealous after what he perceived as a flirtation by Nina with a male fan, Andy beat Nina all the way home, tortured her for hours after tying her to a chair, put a gun to her head, and raped her. Andy beat her so badly, in fact, that Nina went into hiding from him for weeks. When he eventually found her, he asked, “Who beat you up like that?” to which she replied, “You did.” Nina returned to the relationship. She says in the film, “I loved him. I guess I believed he wouldn’t do it anymore.”
Lisa Simone Kelly confirms her father’s violence: “Mom (said)…he rammed my head into a concrete wall…that he punched her in the stomach when she was pregnant with me. As a child, I remember sitting in the car between them, and they were arguing about something, and I remember my father reaching across me and backhanding her.” Andy Stroud offers his perspective on the same event, and, in a rare admission for an abusive husband, agrees with his daughter: “We were going home in the car, I’m driving, and I slapped her, blood spurted right over this eyebrow, she had like a one inch cut from my ring…but we got her home, and I clipped the skin together and taped it. And a week later there wasn’t even a scar.”
“I think they were both nuts,” Lisa concludes. “She stayed with him. She had this love affair with fire. That’s like inviting the bull with the red cape, ‘just come on into my kitchen and let’s see what we can do’. And that’s what she did.”
Simone Kelly’s conclusions are woefully inadequate, dangerous, and left to stand unchallenged. There is no therapist in What Happened, Miss Simone to remind us that women, under any circumstance, do not “invite” domestic violence, no matter how “strong” or “fiery” or talented they are. None of Nina’s family are on hand to express outrage or heartbreak at what we are told happened to her, nor is there a sisterfriend to say, “If I’d known that nigga was hitting on her like that, you better believe there would have been one less business manager in the world.” The suggestion is that Nina, because of her tremendous power as a performer, and as a black woman, is incapable of being victimized. Lisa Simone Kelly, who at one point admits that things got so bad in her relationship with her mother that she went to live with her father as a teenager, may feel that her father’s presence in the film is required. But Nina feels ganged-up on in What Happened, Miss Simone? There aren’t enough people on her team to defend her.
Stroud, who returns repeatedly throughout the film, discusses everything from Nina’s sexuality (“she had no control over her emotions, sex dominated her, there were times when there was a sex attack where she goes into a maniacal rage and had to be sexed”) to her psychological breakdowns on tour. His testimonials dominate What Happened, Miss Simone, and one wonders if he is a reliable source, and whether Nina would have wanted him there at all. Garbus’ film and Cynthia Mort’s Nina contribute to the “Who-knows-what-to-do-with-these-angry-black-females-and-what-the-hell do-they-want?” genre that often justifies violence and violation against black women and girls. Everyone in the film, including Andy, appears to be a sane, credible and reliable source — except Nina.
I will admit to a personal bias here: I grew up with domestic violence in my house. My parents divorced in my teens, and my mother moved out of our family home when she became ill, and bought another home in a different state. After she died, my father, who survived her, came to her new house a day before her funeral, a house he’d never visited even once. I remember him walking around her rooms with authority — opening drawers here, peeking in cabinets there. I knew in my heart, he never would have had the nerve had she been alive. I eventually found a pretext to ask him to leave, but I’ll never forget his entitlement — after divorce, after death.
I recalled this while watching What Happened, Miss Simone? Andy Stroud luxuriates in Nina’s film, like an ex-husband who one day walks in, puts his feet on the coffee table, and asks, fingers laced behind his head, “What time are we having dinner?” This has to be the responsibility of the filmmaker. Stroud humiliates Nina with his sex-talk, and his admission of violence without any remorse early in the film is devastating. Personally, I never got over it and I never trusted Garbus again after that. An hour later he is still humiliating Nina with his remembrances. Nina’s still not safe, even in her own documentary.
By the end of the film I found myself deeply troubled. Garbus’ work, while seeming insightful at first, takes the usual “Lady Sings The Blues” route: we see the disintegration of Nina Simone when we should end with her great triumph. And hers was a triumph. Whether one believes she was destroyed in the end by mental illness, domestic abuse, her own choices, or a constant battle with America’s bitter racial hatred, Nina won simply because she was able to descend into her pain and rage without shattering, and give us jewels like “Mississippi Goddam”, her version of “Pirate Jenny” from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and the aforementioned “Four Women”. (Listen to the live version of “Don’t Smoke In Bed” and hear the tenderness, the courageous offering, the way she engages her audience and holds the room spellbound. No matter where she performed, every venue became a church.)
And yes, Nina sometimes cussed her audiences out when they got out of line, and at her sickest times she had moments where it affected her onstage. Perhaps the jokes were true; Nina’s bodyguard weren’t there to protect her, but to protect the audience from her. Her violence wasn’t abstract; and like Harriet running north with a group of enslaved blacks, you could rouse her ire and piss her off if she felt you disrespected her or the process. But, like Harriet, there was love behind the anger; Nina had a great mission and she wasn’t leaving anyone behind.
I have a heated discussion about Garbus’s film with a friend whose opinion I respect; he is a champion of the film and even meets Nina’s daughter, Simone, at a European screening. I try to explain why the film fails for me. Part of the problem is that most of the clips of Nina’s performing are unfamiliar to him, and of course he is ecstatic and transfixed by what he is watching; whereas I, having gone through a “Nina period” just before the film is released, have seen on YouTube clips Garbus uses in her film, or in documentaries like Frank Lords’ french film, Nina Simone — La Légende. I want him to be able to differentiate between his exhilaration at Nina’s prodigious talent and his response to the filmmaker’s craft which I find deeply lacking in What Happened, Miss Simone? I am furious when I see all the accolades the film is getting, when I know it is Nina’s art that provides the internal engine for Garbus’ film. In her own documentary Nina can’t sit back and enjoy the remembrances of the people who loved her. On the promotional material, she looks exhausted, revealing more about the film than may be intended. Nina is roused from death only to return to the familiar drudge: in What Happened Miss Simone?, a black woman is doing a white woman’s work for her.
Through what appears to be an unfortunate coincidence of timing, Jeff L. Lieberman’s film on Nina came out after Garbus’ film had already enjoyed great fanfare, and yet it is the superior film. I watched a screening of The Amazing Nina Simone in Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem, and observed how the packed audience responded to it. I knew as soon as I saw the title and opening credits that the sensibility of the film was clear; Nina’s work is considered sacred ground. Although Nina Simone’s daughter chose not to appear in the film, other family members, including her remaining siblings, provided personal stories from when Nina was a little girl in Tryon, North Carolina, playing in the black church. Nina is remembered by musicians, friends, business colleagues, scholars, and, finally, finally, we have a poet, a black artist, to navigate us. Nikki Giovanni reminds us why Nina was indeed amazing, what she meant to her personally as an artist, to a generation of activists and black women. The film is restorative. I sense Lieberman’s delight in Nina’s talent. He takes what we think we already knew, and allows for new discoveries, the documentarian’s gift. If any film could possibly have earned Nina’s approval, I could see her saying, “That’s it, man. You got it.”
Last week, I met a man who told me an incredible story about Nina. You can read the biographies and watch the documentaries, but I am always grateful to someone who was there when the lights went down. He’d seen Nina twice in his lifetime, once when she performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The five-thousand-strong audience gave her a fifteen-minute standing ovation just for walking on the stage. He’d never seen anything like it before or since. The first time, however, he was walking along 66th Street and Broadway in New York during the Eighties and saw a box-office envelope on the ground. When he picked it up and opened it, it was a ticket to see Nina Simone in concert.
The night of the show, he sat in the Lincoln Center audience expectantly. Nina’s musicians took the stage at 8pm, the start of the show, but no Nina. The audience waited until ten after, twenty minutes after, forty minutes after, and finally it was clear that something was wrong. At ten to nine, Nina rushed from backstage, ran over to the mike and said to the audience, “I’m not playing one note until these motherfuckers pay me my money!” Eventually she sat down at the piano, but before the music began, she looked out into the audience, and lifted her hand. With a beckoning finger, she said gravely, “Come here, and bring it to me.” A man in a suit sheepishly came down the aisle and extended an envelope to Nina. And the concert began.
Nina wasn’t easy, she didn’t play nice for folks, and she suffered for it. But many returned to her over the years even as she got sicker because they believed in her great talent, and because she was generous. She may be betrayed by filmmakers who coarsen the subtle textures of her life, but fortunately we still have, and will always have, her records. Nina’s music is her documentary, she speaks for herself.
Don Cheadle is in less trouble in Miles Ahead than Zoe Saldana in Nina, but it’s a sad, tragic comparison. Cheadle is a talented, nuanced actor, and has shown greatness on screen, so hearing it announced that he would play Miles Davis seemed like a lovely, bright idea. But as I left the theater, I despaired and wondered whether Nina might be the superior film, if only because it seems at least to know in which emotional universe it should exist.
Miles Ahead is conceived as a caper movie, hijinks rather than a traditionally linear biography like Ray, The Buddy Holly Story or Coal Miner’s Daughter. Miles Ahead’s conceit has been considered “experimental” and “daring” by some reviewers, and might have worked if the caper had been a narrative device to get us into the plot. The mistake that Cheadle and his team made is that the device becomes the plot — a doomed decision from which the movie never recovers.
Cheadle writes, produces, directs and acts in this movie, an incredible feat, but, unfortunately, it must also be said, in this case a misguided one. One of the legacies of the Prince oeuvre was the exhilaration many of us felt when we saw on the record label “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince.” We knew not only that the music we were listening to was completely his vision, but that he was playing most, if not all, of the instruments we heard. The idea of having complete control is deeply alluring to any artist, but even Prince met his Waterloo as a director in Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.
Miles Ahead begins with Miles Davis in an interview with a white reporter from Rolling Stone magazine named Dave Braden (a fictional character played by Ewan McGregor). After the brief opening, we flash back to when Dave, attempting to get the interview we are watching, arrives unannounced on Miles’ doorstep. Miles, outraged at Dave’s presumption, punches him in the face. Through a series of contrivances, Dave locks Davis out of his own house. The scene is played for laughs — which may have been fine — but the filmmakers want us to keep laughing. Dave and Miles bond after a scene at Columbia Records where Miles, infuriated, pulls a gun on record executives and Dave, eager to earn Miles’ trust, later gets a friend to score Miles some coke. The movie meanders along until we are finally introduced to the main plot: Dave and Miles must retrieve a tape stolen during a party at Miles’ home by the nefarious executives. There is a lot of shouting — all variations on “motherfucker where’s my tape” — some gunshots, a car chase, flashbacks to Miles’ first marriage, and Miles gets his tape back. The End. Someone in the theater sat upright at this point and said, as the credits rolled, “That can’t be it.”
It is never made clear what is special about the tape in question except that the record company wants new music from Miles that he isn’t delivering, and they refuse to pay him. Miles Ahead might have had a chance if the entire production had been stylized, every character a “classic” of the jazz world, including some of Miles’ surviving friends. But almost everyone except Miles is crudely conceived, or belongs in a different movie altogether. We get a record-company henchman who looks like a Quentin Tarantino impersonator; a grunting, menacing meathead black bodyguard, and a young, nervous musician-junkie type just oozing talent and waiting to be discovered by Miles. (The Tarantino comparison is apt: when Miles pulls his gun on the suits at his label, his jerri-curl showdown resembles Sam Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction.) All the stock characters are from screenwriting 101, with actors sent over from central casting. Miles has one relationship throughout the movie that is presented as the love of his life. The actress who plays his wife Frances Taylor, has her moments, but there isn’t enough momentum or nuance for these scenes to work. Frances as written isn’t equal to Miles, and the actress’s abilities don’t match Cheadle’s.
We need to see Miles during his marriage to Cicely Tyson, another powerhouse of talent. And we need scenes like one Miles describes in his biography: Miles and Cicely are in a limousine with several other black and white couples on their way to dinner at the Reagan White House as part of a tribute to Ray Charles. Miles doesn’t want to be there, but he loves and wants to honor Ray. At one point, a white woman in the car leans over and says, “Miles, I know your mammy’s proud of you coming down to meet the President!”
Miles writes, “Everything in the car got quiet, real quiet. I know everybody was thinking to themselves, of all the motherfuckers to say this to, why did she say this to Miles? They were just waiting for me to go off on this old-ass broad.
I turned to her and said, ‘Listen, my mother ain’t no motherfucking mammy, you hear what I’m telling you! That word is out of style and people don’t use it anymore. My mother was more elegant and proper than you could ever be, and my father was a doctor. So don’t you ever say anything like that to a black person anymore, you hear what I’m telling you?’ When I was telling her this, I never did raise my voice one time. But she knew what I was saying because I was looking her in her fucking eyes and if looks could have killed she would have been dead. She got the message and apologized.”
Miles’ biography, written with Quincy Troupe, inspired rage from black feminists at the time, including writer Pearl Cleage who wrote Mad At Miles about his violence towards women, his unapologetic behavior and contempt for Tyson, and conclusions he made in the book about black women in general. Miles Ahead reveals Miles’ violence towards women in one scene, but the scene is muted, stylized, and Miles appears only to be defending himself. Miles Ahead backs away from anything dramatically compelling, as if it would undermine the film’s comedic tone.
We never see, for example, Miles collaborating with Charlie Parker (Bird), Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Erroll Garner and other legends, or find out how their genius inspires his. He wrote in his book about Charlie Parker’s talent on stage as so good it could be “terrifying”: “I was amazed at how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth”, said Miles.
“Shit, he went from looking real down to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him. It was amazing the transformation that took place once he started playing… it was like hearing music for the first time…He could play like a motherfucker even when he was almost falling-down drunk and nodding off behind heroin. Bird was something else… “
Instead of this incredible moment dramatized, we get yet another slapstick scene with Dave being punched in the face again, this time over unpaid alimony. With the exception of a few brief scenes in which Miles directs a studio session, we keep returning to the stolen tape plot. We never see what shaped him as an artist or how he overcame his own heroin addiction. Like Nina, Miles Ahead has depression at its core, because it begins with Miles as a legend but also as a has-been, isolated and unwell, his glory days and greatness behind him. And, like Nina, the film refuses to give us the pleasure that usually comes from the bio-pic genre, no matter how clichéd it is — the “big break”, the rise to the top, the point where the artist realizes, “I’ve finally made it.” Nina Simone and Miles Davis — black, self-made, successful and ferociously independent in real life –when re-imagined by Hollywood, have on them the stink of losers.
A friend of mine kindly compared the film to a jazz aficionado’s version of Oceans Eleven, but that’s way too generous: Miles Ahead is more of a hipster’s episode of Scooby Doo. Even on the terms of zany mad-cap filmmaking, the movie falls flat. Don Cheadle is clearly ready to play Miles, and has the gravelly voice and limp, suggesting, as all great actors do, a deeper, internal life. The role might have been a revelation as a one-man show on stage. A scene where Miles brings Dave down into his private office is a masterclass of small details and vocal nuance. But as the central relationship of the movie is Miles’ interaction with Dave, and as Miles is impatient with Dave most of the time, the movie is like a concerto played on one note. When Dave and Miles outrun the bad guys, clutching the tape and scrambling to get away, I thought of Lethal Weapon and Danny Glover: “I’m getting too old for this shit.” For a movie called Miles Ahead, Miles barely makes it around the corner.
Cheadle has given interviews in which he discusses getting the film, a labor of love, financed. He has honestly shared his process in Hollywood and the fact that he couldn’t get the film financed without a white character added to the script. It was a bargain he made with the devil. Perhaps there were other options. As I watch Miles Ahead, I wonder if Cheadle ever considered having a stock white interviewer, as in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman — one who encourages Miles to tell his story in flashback, but is then kept strictly in the margins. Or maybe the white character could have been Bill Evans, the pianist on Kind of Blue. We might have seen their relationship as artists fleshed out, what their collaboration on that piece revealed about talent, collaboration, and race in the 1950’s. One leaves the theater mourning the lost opportunities in Miles Ahead. Dave Bradden is so at the forefront of the action that with just a slightly different final cut, the film could be about him, conceived as 2011’s My Week With Marilyn: An average joe gets the chance of a lifetime when he spends the day on a treasure hunt with a jazz icon: Miles, Me and The Missing Tape. I knew something was wrong the minute the movie ended because I liked the Miles/Dave relationship a little too much, the easy chemistry between the two of them, the facile resolution of the central crisis. Miles Ahead feels like a pilot episode in preparation for a sitcom. (You almost expect to hear, “Miles Ahead was filmed in front of a live studio audience.”)
In a final scene as the credits roll we see Miles playing in the experimental, fusion style that was his trademark in later years. There is color and movement and, best of all, no Dave. Cheadle as Miles moves across the stage, in charge, with his band. The impersonation is deeply convincing and the scene leaves us hungry for more; suggesting what the film might have been had Miles’ talent been its singular focus.
The fact that Cheadle is at the helm of Miles Ahead reveals that we are at an interesting time when blacks with power in the industry, even with the best intentions, are the ones sometimes making the wrong choices. Cheadle was right, he is the actor to play Miles, but not like this. I’d rather see a great film made on PBS, Amazon or Netflix, or a mini-series on NBC, or Cheadle raise money on Kickstarter, even if he had to wait another year or two, than to have a Hollywood film that reduces Miles’ life to a comedy gag. David Oyelowo is credited as an executive producer on Nina, Wendy Williams notoriously produced the Aaliyah movie, Aaliyah: The Princess of R & B, which was met with almost unanimous derision when it appeared. Miles Ahead is not the debacle that Nina is, but for the filmmaker who now wants to attempt a serious introspection into Davis’ life, she may be met with even more resistance in Hollywood than before: Oh, didn’t you see Miles Ahead? The Miles Davis story has already been told.
Prince is gone, and for those who felt his songs became part of our DNA, there is a still an unreality to it — we may feel musically abandoned. Last week, a black woman in my neighborhood was still grieving him when I ran into her. “Whitney, Michael, Luther, Prince,” she said. “I never thought I’d outlive them all. The world is definitely a less interesting place. When are we ever going to get another bag of tricks like Prince?”
In these later years, I’ll admit to having had a different, less vital relationship to his songs than I had when I was a teenager. But I always took a peek at his latest work in case something led me back to the phenomenal years of my favorite era: Prince and The Revolution.
I remember spending my allowance on his 12” singles, bringing them home in brown paper bags from Warehouse Records, and running to the stereo in eager anticipation. Prince’s albums were works of art, his use of color alone was subversive for a black male pop-singer of the time, and the cover designs and occasionally the vinyl records themselves were like confections — you could almost taste them. It wasn’t just his hit singles that delighted you, Prince was notorious for his incredible “B” sides: “Let’s Go Crazy” was magnificent, but “Erotic City” was a warped, raunchy masterpiece. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” was cute, but “Irresistible Bitch” with it’s “Ho, Ho, Ho, Ho” refrain was the song that wore your needle out. Long-size records played at 45rpm; you could feel that Prince was a trickster — a perfectionist with a sense of humor. You adored Prince because you knew he was devoted to giving you pleasure, his records were sensual delights, and if you were a dancer or musician yourself, his music was air.
Stardom and talent like Prince’s are a strange phenomenon. As I listened to the tributes on the news and radio, I realized the incredible intimacy his music creates with each listener. It is completely irrational, but I found myself irritated that I had to share him with Wolf Blitzer of CNN, experiencing the kind of the possessiveness one feels towards an unfaithful lover. Prince was mine and “Private Joy” was my jam. Who were all these other people in the room? I know I’m not the only one who felt this way. A friend of mine revealed to me recently that as a teenager she would curl up to Prince’s “International Lover” every night before she went to sleep.
Prince was nasty and unpredictable, vulgar to some, perhaps, but with a lovely delicacy. Rebellious to the core, you never knew where he might take you, which added to the rush of opening a new Prince album. He was willing to talk about sex, and his musical persona enjoyed sex, delighted in it. It was liberating for me as a pre-teen to hear him ask in the song “Controversy”, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” I was on the phone with my friend as we sang our favorite Prince songs to each other and agreed; sometimes we were so busy dancing to Prince that we forgot to acknowledge the revolutionary and counter-cultural aspects in his music and lyrics, especially the earlier albums, and how relevant they still are today. 1999/DMSR: “Policeman got no gun, you don’t have to run.” 1999/1999: “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” Dirty Mind/Party Up: “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war, cause we don’t want to fight no more.” And, “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late.”
I wasn’t comfortable with the misogyny in some of his work and in the film Purple Rain, and wondered at times how that affected his collaborations with band members and writers like Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, or protégées like Vanity and Apollonia. I could have done without the “pimpy” aspects of what appeared to be his Svengali-like control over some of the artists he produced. There are a few songs in his catalogue that are disturbing to listen to, that speak to the domestic violence and abuse of women and children I imagine he grew up with and that he referenced in Rain. A man who writes ballads as beautifully as Prince has to have listened to women, and at some point related to their pain. But with sexual violence, I wasn’t sure if he identified more with the victim or the perpetrator — or both.
I also worried in later years that Prince had become compulsive about religion, and that by finding “God” he had come to devalue his early work and his influence on the culture as a sexual subversive. I consider the role that religion has played for the black artists I admire, when fundamentalism can be as attractive as drugs, another form of “black madness”, and just as numbing. When I heard Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness I thought, “He’s seeking God elsewhere now”, but for me, I found holiness in those 12” albums — even the nasty songs, and sometimes especially the nasty songs. Prince was our sexual shaman, a voodoo priest of a different kind from Nina, bringing our sexual fears to the surface, challenging our taboos and sexual hypocrisy with a fantastic sense of irony. And people are still deeply frightened by Prince’s power: a friend of mine lost his job at a TV news station for weaving Prince’s lyrics into his sports coverage as a tribute. When I reflect on the songs that he wrote, or produced, “Nasty Girl”, “Party Up”, “Head”, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “Sexuality”, “Jack U Off” I rejoice in the Prince I loved then, a Prince who invented himself, and who was black, sexual, creative, a punk, and, it seemed to me at the time, free.
Prince’s philanthropy has been a subject of great discussion since his death — in an interview with CNN, commentator Van Jones shared that when Lauryn Hill went to jail, Prince called him to inquire about her children and how he could help. As an out black gay man, I’ll always be grateful to him. He offered me, in his purple ruffles and blouses, make-up, stilettos, fishnet stockings and flowers, an alternative to traditional ideas of masculinity and sexuality. His dandified style gave me permission to be queer and helped me negotiate my black, queer madness. During the Eighties, it meant so much that he, Annie Lennox, and Boy George were experimenting with gender identity. Despite the homophobia around me, with Prince I could envision for myself a glorious faggotry.
So finally, I am writing this essay for the writer or filmmaker who, immediately upon hearing of the death of Prince, licked the tip of his pencil, fired up his computer and began to write the Hollywood screenplay of Prince’s life — the “tragic tale” of a great American musician dead from a drug overdose, an internationally renowned superstar, once a boy from the streets of Minneapolis, gone too soon.
I would like to encourage him to stop now, before he contrives to begin his movie in what he considers to be the “declining” years of Prince’s life. I want him to throw away the scene he’s written where Prince, outraged at a meeting with executives from Warner Brothers, pulls a .357 magnum out of a purple handbag and screams, “Motherfucker, let me out of this contract or everybody in this room dies tonight!”
I want our writer to avoid comedic car chases where Prince flees jealous ex-girlfriends or mobsters, I want him to spare us love-interests that never existed, and kinky scenes involving candle-wax. I don’t want Prince searching for missing tapes. I want our writer to research Prince’s relationships, and not include a scene where Prince hits women just because frustrated black musicians in the movies always hit women. I want him to seriously consider how many times we actually see Prince the artist creating, writing, and collaborating with other musicians, and how often he is tempted to delete these scenes to show us a Prince who is alone in an elevator with a bottle of painkillers in his hand, because addiction and tragedy-porn “sell”.
I want this writer to change his mind before he creates — inspired by films like The Karate Kid (1984) and Crossroads — a young blond guitarist named “Matt” who stands at the entrance to Paisley Park at 4:00 am, demanding to see the reclusive Prince. Prince peeks through the purple curtains and tells his security to “let him in” because he sees something in the courageous young upstart. Prince and the boy become fast friends, Prince teaches him everything he knows, and they jam together until the end of the film when Matt is ready to play his own concert at Prince’s exclusive club. Matt performs “Purple Rain” as a tribute while Prince stands in the back, holding his hands together in prayer, tears streaming down his face. Working Title: “One Day My Prince Will Come.”
I want the film’s director to admit that Matt is a fictitious character he created to get his script financed. I want the director not to cast a white actor as Prince because he wants to reach a “broader” audience, and besides, didn’t Prince once claim he was Italian or Spanish or something?
If you followed Prince’s career, then you know he was still performing and creating right up to the end of his life. And because he fought and insisted on having complete control of his music, because he was able to say no to the industry, because he respected his art and himself, and, mostly importantly, because he knew his worth, one would imagine it would be difficult for a writer to manipulate His Royal Badness into a script devoted to stereotypical Hollywood black buffoonery and wretchedness.
But Nina’s blackness was as hard and enduring as onyx, an African juju that pierced you like a church-house scream, as deep and penetrating as her voodoo stare into our collective souls– and yet somehow we still ended up with Cynthia Mort’s Nina. And if it can be done to Nina, The High Priestess of Soul, let me assure you, it can happen to any of us. It can happen to you.
Somehow it doesn’t feel entirely coincidental that we lost Prince the day before Nina opened — April 21st, the anniversary of Nina Simone’s death, and the final blow to a film that should never have been made in the first place, driving it completely underground. Perhaps it was one artist speaking for or protecting another. Nina recorded her version of “Sign O’ the Times” for a final album before she died. I imagine somewhere in music heaven Nina and Prince are having delicious musical conversations, each finding the other amusing and profound. Or perhaps their music converses only on our turntables, as Nina sings to us, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” and Prince answers her, one genius winking at another, and also her beautiful black son: “Be glad that you are free, there’s many a man who’s not, be glad for what you had, baby, what you’ve got. Be glad for what you’ve got.”
New York City, May 15, 2016
If you’ve enjoyed this essay and would like to support Max’s work, please visit: www.patreon.com/maxsgordon
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”