When the late Nina Simone first hit the music scene in the 1950s, and right through the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, even the most anti-racist of white audiences didn’t know what to make of her. She scared them, in fact: While she could deliver a torchy, bluesy number like “Black Coffee” with the best of the jazz chanteuses of the day, what burned in her was clearly a righteous wrath that was unaccommodating, white-hot and transfigurative.
Though she sang “Mississippi Goddam” to the crowds at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Simone told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointblank that she was “not nonviolent” the first time that she met him. Trained as a classical pianist, she could take a Eurocentric anthem like Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and turn it with ease into the cri de coeur of every black domestic worker in America.
Simone’s powerful stage presence and the growly brilliance and fire in her voice were not to be denied, so in time she came to be acknowledged as the “High Priestess of Soul,” even if commercial success mostly eluded her on these shores. The list of performers who have cited her as a key influence is a mile long, and some of them are among the interviewees in Jeff Lieberman’s new documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, along with her brother and longtime band member Sam Waymon, her former lover Christine Dunham-Pratt, her friend the poet Nikki Giovanni and many more. The film is a deep dive into the career and persona of a complicated woman and a musical genius.
The Amazing Nina Simone film will screen at 8 p.m. this Friday, November 20 at Upstate Films Rhinebeck and again at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 21 at Upstate Films Woodstock, with Lieberman on hand for live question-and-answer sessions following both shows. You can find out more, including a link to the trailer, at https://upstatefilms.org/?p=17601.