Sunday, July 05, 2015

TV: The return of the TV movie

The return of the TV movie really questions The Nation magazine's refusal to get behind war resisters throughout the Iraq War.

In part, it was because Katrina vanden Heuvel (who bought her way into the magazine) feared support for war resisters would lead to higher postal rates, among other things.  (That the government would retaliate was her fear, that she'd become the new Charles Schenck.)

But though she couldn't support those who stood up for peace, today the magazine's applauding someone who argued for armed revolution.


Are you ready, Black people?
Are you ready, Black people?
Are you really ready?
Are you ready to call the wrath of  Black gods?

Black magic?
To do your bidding?
Are you ready to smash White things?
To burn buildings?
Are you ready?
Are you ready to kill if necessary?
Is your mind ready?
Is your body ready?

Are you really, really, really ready?

That's the part of David Nelson's poem that Nina Simone is seen reading/ranting onstage at some daytime rally to incite violence in the new TV movie What Happened, Miss Simone?

We call it a TV movie not just because it's streaming on Netflix but also because the indie film is one lie or evasion after another.

But the above noted scene, and others in the same time frame, not only refute claims Simone made in her  autobiography, they've also stunned people who've seen the documentary and are learning of her call for violence in the United States.  She also is documented in the film explaining how she supports a Black state in the United States and believes that an armed struggle and the deaths that will result from it will turn one of the fifty states into a separatist one and we'll come back to that because that's the larger indictment of the actions of Nina Simone.

Nina who?

Chanel declawed the activist and singer via the 1987 utilization of her "My Baby Just Cares For Me" cover (a song she detested) for their TV ad campaign.  It gave her a new lease on life after she had faded from memory.  John Badham's 1993 action thriller Point of No Return found Bridget Fonda's character romanticizing Simone as the saint of suffering and using the lyrics of "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" to flirt with an assassin.  That and the occasional Sandra Bernhard club riff or essay was, more or less, the Nina Simone 'revival' for the 80s and early 90s.

If that seems harsh, so was Nina Simone.

Appearing at a paying gig at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as the sixties closed down (and as her bookings were harder and harder to get), she told an audience of thousands, "I know that there are only 300 Black students here in this college of 18,000 so this song is dedicated only to you."

As a step to honor the sentiments of "Young, Gifted and Black," not a bad move at all.

But it's actually part of a movement of division that Nina imposed upon her audiences.

The film largely skirts this.

Like Barbra Streisand, Nina began her career refusing to sing until the audience quieted down.

Unlike Barbra, she did more than that.

She called the audience out.

Individual members.

The film gets at this in one scene where Nina stops in the middle of playing Janis Ian's "Stars" to yell at a "girl" (we don't see the woman) to sit down.

Let's repeat that.

At a music festival, she is seen stopping her opening number -- which she introduces with some maudlin remarks -- in order to yell at an audience member to sit down.

This was a typical Nina Simone concert move.

As she grew more bitter over the years, she added additional moves.

There was the concert in Cannes where she yelled at the audience, "Loosen up! Are you all dead or something?  The only ghosts I ever saw were White -- you asked for that!"

There was Pamplona where she attacked the audience with, "I don't sing for bastards.  I don't like White people."

(Mike Zwerin captured Pamplona in his 2003 New York Times obituary on Simone where he noted that it began with her pulling a knife on festival artistic director Raymond Gonzalez and she then "pulled the same knife on the taxi driver" and then, when she finally took the stage, Simone "was obviously loaded and went out of her way to insult the audience.")

Those are only a few examples.

When you spit on your audience, you have problems with a career.

Nina's problems went beyond that, however.

The film skirts some of her biggest problems.

In the film, Nina leaves her wedding ring at the New York house, ends her marriage to her manager Andrew Stroud and ends up in Liberia.

That's not exactly what happened.

Nina always insisted she (a) intended her husband to continue to be her manager and (b) remain married but he misinterpreted her gesture and divorced her as a result.

Her gesture included moving to Barbados where she became the mistress of Prime Minister Errol Barrow until he tired of her.  At some point during this, she returns to the United States where she finds that she's wanted for unpaid taxes.

Nina, in her book and in interviews, cast this as her refusal to pay taxes because she didn't want her money going to support the war on Vietnam and kind but uninformed writers have sided with her against the IRS.

Reality: The unpaid taxes weren't federal.  This was why the city of Mount Vernon took over her Mount Vernon home.

The IRS becomes a problem around 1978, well after her time in Barbados and Liberia, when they announce she owes back taxes for the years 1971, 1972 and 1973.  This is at the time where she owes various hotels for stays (like Judy Garland in her final years), owes $10,000 to American Express, owes for charges at various department stores, etc. .

The movie regularly trashes the facts of Nina's art.

They suggest, via the use of a song, that Nina was singing at revivals (her mother was a Methodist minister).  She only played piano at the revivals.

And that's an important part of her training and artistic development but it's ignored to instead zoom in on the classical playing.

Her songwriting -- especially when she's doing an activist song -- owes as much to the church as it does to classical training.


She wanted violence.  Her husband notes that in the film, how she wanted violence and would say, "'Let's get the guns.  Let's poison the reservoir' -- all sorts of violent, terrorist acts."

It started with the Civil Rights Movement.

But though she participated in the March on Selma, she quickly grew frustrated, as the film documents:

Guitarist Al Schackman: I remember one time she walked up to Dr. King and said, "I'm not non-violent!" And he said, "That's okay, sister, you don't have to be."

Nina Simone: I was never non-violent.  Never.  I thought we should get our rights by any means necessary.

Turning on the leadership and teachings of MLK was a big change.

She did so publicly.

She called for armed revolution publicly.

And was surprised that there would be fall out from this.

Andrew Stroud declares in the film, "She was putting down the White people raw-raw-raw -- like a barking dog.  But she still wanted the good things.  Whenver she'd see like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and all these people on prime television shows, she, of course, was very upset because she wasn't able to get onto these shows because of her reputation."

She was also putting down Aretha and Gladys . . . and Diana Ross and Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne and everyone including even Elton John.

Her daughter offers in the film that anger fueled her.

Possibly but so did resentment.

Stroud and Simone's marriage was marked by violence.  He refers to "backhanding" her in the car.  Her journal entries -- read throughout the film -- include her need for sex to be violent and painful.

Stroud may or may not be a monster.  He may or may not have beaten her many times.*

But he did know how to build her career.

She'd be nowhere without Stroud.

She claimed she lost millions of dollars in royalties.


She was not a songwriter on those early, pre-Stroud management recordings.

Vocalists got very small royalties -- especially when they were on rag tag labels.

She elected to sell those rights for $3,000.

When Chanel used her early recording of "My Baby Just Cares For Me," Stroud was telling everyone (but Nina who no longer spoke to him) that Nina was a fool.

She wasn't getting any royalties from the song, a popular song.

All she had to do, he argued, was re-record the song and publicly insist/shame Chanel into using that recording for which she'd be paid.

After Stroud, she had friends who 'rescued' her but no one who planned for her career or could think of anything other than 'get her on the road.'

It was with Stroud that Nina found financial success, the spacial Mount Vernon home (with "a cold storage where she kept her furs and her costumes," according to her daughter), the high life, etc.

From that foundation of success, she began to explore the artistic world and the political world.

But her resentments and her frustrations overtook her activism.

To be clear, Nina's actions are in reaction to the times.

That's not just the violence that marked the period or the discrimination (or violent discrimination), it's also Nina reacting to other elements working towards something.

And Nina's more extreme statements were in reaction to a conservative element in the Civil Rights Movement which would not call out the war on Vietnam and would not argue loudly for rights.  (This element turned on Dr. Martin Luther King.)

But that said, when you're calling for violence, you're calling for violence.

That's the reality.

And while Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was hoping to work in the south to gather together civil rights activists and anti-war activists into a coalition, Nina was among some advocating for division.

That's why, for her, an answer was a civil war in the US which would result in a Black state.

She wanted this and yet she later whines, in the late seventies and eighties, that there is no Civil Rights Movement today.

What she was advocating was the enshrinement of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Did she not grasp that?

Did she not grasp that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was about stripping the 'separate but equal' damage done by Plessy v. Ferguson?

She certainly didn't grasp the need for a large and encompassing movement.

A minority population can achieve some things with violence.

Whether it could have achieved that or not, who knows?

But Nina, in the seventies, lamented the demise of the Civil Rights Movement.

She was angry, she was mad.

She was everything but willing to be accountable.

The Civil Rights Movement took off because people were outraged.


And the film's footage captures that.  Along with African-Americans, you see Latinos and Anglo-Whites protesting.

Nina's exclusion of non-Blacks from the Civil Rights Movement, her desire to splinter it, helped weaken the movement.

Not Nina by herself, but the faction she was part of.

No White person should have been speaking as he head of the Civil Rights Movement.

The movement needed to be Black led.

But there's a difference between making that argument and rushing to exclude non-Blacks from even being part of the movement.

Advocating for violence also tends to run people off.

It's interesting that The Nation is rushing to extol Nina Simone when about a decade ago it was attacking the Weather Underground for its embrace of violence during this same time period.

Is The Nation now for armed violence within the United States?

Or do they just give people of color a pass on violence?

The Weather Underground wanted exactly what Nina Simone wanted.

But they got condemned while Nina gets praised as a hero.

To praise her as a hero, they ignore the fact that she beat her daughter (to the point that her daughter considered suicide).

Frank Sinatra wasn't a saint.

He didn't beat Nancy, Tina or Frank Jr., but he wasn't a saint.

And we can draw a line between the person and the artist.

And we should be able to draw a line between the person Nina Simone and the artist Nina Simone.

But that's not what The Nation does.

It offers an ahistorical rave from Syreeta McFadden (her slam on Motown means we wave the middle finger to the idiot).

McFadden, as usual, is on a rave about a recent discovery and that's the movie which gives her the 'truth' she needs to grasp.

But the film's not truthful.

And if you're going to write about an activist, you need to evaluate their activism.

Nina Simone failed as an activist.

She was part of a movement that killed the Civil Rights Movement.

They did so by advocating for violence and they did so by excluding supporters.

To be sure, the movement was attacked by the government -- the FBI, the White House, the CIA, military intelligence, etc.

But a vibrant movement could have fought back.

One that had been divided and shattered had no chance of survival.

She accomplished more in her political songwriting than she did in her political speeches and statements.

The TV movie has frequently attempted to provide a glancing look at reality.

1982's Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal made a lot of people feel proud of themselves.  It just rendered a complex story in simplistic terms and, in the end, accomplished nothing.

That's the reality of TV movies with very few exceptions (two would be The Burning Bed and The Day After).

And  the reality of What Happened, Miss Simone? is that it really doesn't matter.

Liz Garbus has created a fascinating fairy tale, but she hasn't captured reality.

In fairness to Garbus, a very talented film maker, she wasn't going to.

Not with Simone's daughter overseeing and signing off on the film.

The daughter is a bit off.

She's been at war with a film -- non-documentary -- about her mother for years now (Nina)..

Originally, she was slamming it because Mary J. Blige was being cast as Nina.  The film, she huffed, needed an actress, not a singer.

Then she was enraged that Zoe Saldana -- an actress -- was cast.

Zoe, she carped, did not look like her mother.

Did Diana Ross look like Billie Holiday?

No, and it didn't stop Diana from giving an incredible performance in Lady Sings The Blues, one that was nominated for an Academy Award.

Did Barbra Streisand look like Fanny Brice?

No, and it didn't stop her from winning the Academy Award for Funny Girl.

There's a cult encouraging the daughter in this crap -- the cult includes the former president of the Nina Simone UK fan club.

And she's felt the need to out a dead man as gay to attack the film.

The film, which she hasn't seen, is about the love story of her mother and caregiver Clifton Henderson.

Henderson sold the rights to his story and Simone's daughter had no input and no pay off which seems to have enraged her the most.

She insists that Henderson was gay and therefore did not sleep with her mother.

Does she not know how many gay men her mother slept with from 1979 forward?

Or does she just believe that a gay man can't sleep with a woman?

Pity she never heard Joan Crawford share how she seduced Rock Hudson, "Just close your eyes and pretend I'm Clark Gable."

Gay men have always been able to sleep with women.  Viagra made it easier in recent years, even let one closeted gay movie star  -- far too young to be on Viagra -- marry a woman for a semi-successful marriage -- semi-successful until recently.

Henderson may have been gay.  More likely, as rumors suggest, he was bi-sexual.

It's amazing that the daughter resorts to homophobia to dispute the relationship.

Amazing until you grasp that she wasn't in touch with her mother at the end.  Nina wrote her out of the will.  A sympathetic California court re-instated her.

But Nina writing her out of the will was Nina.

It's the same Nina who refused to see her dying father in the hospital -- despite his begging her for days to visit.

And that's one fact among many that doesn't make the so-called documentary.

That's left out.  Her affair with a foreign ruler (which Nina wrote about in her autobiography) is also left out.  So much is.

And yet the daughter today attacks the film she's never seen based on her assertion that it's not truthful?

Like her mother, she struggles with truth.

But the artist Nina Simone?

She was about the truth, she was about her times and the world around her.  We understand Stan's outrage expressed in "F**k The Nation magazine and f**k Syreeta McFadden" and agree The Nation needs to be called out for suddenly reversing its stance on violence.  But we long ago learned there was the art and there was the person.  For all her immense faults as a person (especially beating her child), as an artist, Nina Simone remains heroic.  Not even a tacky 'documentary' can strip her of that.


* Note: We are not defending Stroud, nor are we attacking him.  He admits to "backhanding" Nina at one point.  Later in life, Nina will claim he beat her constantly and will offer one incident as proof.  Her guitarist will back her up.  But though her guitarist saw her beaten, he did not see who beat her.  Nina had an open marriage and was attracted to violent men.  Throughout her life, she was frequently involved with men who beat her.  She appeared to confuse these attacks with devotion and passion until they brought serious injuries.  With regard to Stroud, it is in her journal entries that she needed violent sex and that violence turned her on.  That real time, while she was married to Stroud, journal entry may or may not suggest that she expressed this turn on to Stroud.  What impact that had on their relationship outside of bed, we have no idea.  And that possible impact is why we're remaining neutral on this clouded issue which is no where near as clear cut as the film attempts to portray.  We do not condone violence.  We are noting that Stroud readily admits to one incident but not others.  We are noting that Nina slept with many men who beat her -- during her marriage to Stroud and after.  We are also saying that in the sixties, telling your husband violence turns you on and you need violent sex may lead to confusion as to where you want the violence to begin and where you want it to end.

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