Nina Simone has been hailed as High Priestess of Soul — her love and passion, her fight for freedom and empowerment, are embodied in her vast body of work. There are more than 40 original albums in the Nina Simone library.
Simone’s 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” was her response to the Alabama church bombing and the Mississippi murder of Medgar Evers. The song was banned throughout the South – for profanity, they said – but became a civil rights activist anthem.
In the song, she sings, “You keep on sayin’ Go slow! Go slow! … But (it) bring more tragedy, do it slow”
Prophetic. It’s appalling that today, 50 years on, that rallying cry remains as urgent as ever.
North Carolina GODDAM!!
WHAT HAPPENED MISS SIMONE (2015)
Liz Garbus, who is no stranger to biopics, directs this film using archival footage and a minimum of third party talking heads. She charts the rise of Nina Simone from a Jim Crow childhood to Julliard, her defining role in the Civil Rights Movement, on to her arrival at Carnegie Hall, and finally her self-imposed exile in the South of France.
In 1962, Simone befriended the ceiling-busting playwright Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”). The two struck up an impassioned dialogue about the Civil Rights Movement.
“We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote in her memoir decades later. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” The killing of Medgar Evers and the four girls in Birmingham became catalysts for the transformation of Nina’s career.
That career was not a stroll in a sunny park. She summed it up in her memoir: “My father used to say to me, ‘One day, I promise you you’ll will see the world. You’ll go to far distant places… Along the way, you’ll have joy and you’ll have your pain.’ I’ve experienced some of that.”
Nina Simone’s music was largely influenced by Billie Holiday. This Motown-produced film, based on Holiday’s celebrated memoir, stars Diana Ross as the jazz legend and chronicles her hard-knock beginnings, remarkable career and the personal demons that led to her tragic demise.
Holiday said her father Clarence Holiday was denied treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of prejudice and that singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of the incident. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
Her battle with drugs, arrests and a ban from performing cabaret in NYC are dramatized in this film along with her triumphant return to Carnegie Hall and subsequent death at 44 years.
The release of Selma last year commemorated the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The marchers were beaten back brutally the first time the tried to cross the Selma bridge, but came back a second time and triumphantly marched on to the state capital
Nina performed the song “Mississippi Goddam” in front of 40,000 people at end of the march with other black activists including Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.
The campaign attracted national attention and played a part in convincing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In his speech, President Johnson affirmed his support for the goals of the civil rights movement: “We will not delay or we will not hesitate, or we will not turn aside until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same rights as all others to share in the progress of democracy.”
If only Johnson’s words had been as prophetic as Simone’s.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Spike Lee’s epic Malcolm X covers the life of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most controversial and misunderstood public figures. Denzel Washington does more than portray Malcolm X — he manages to bring him to life in a tour de force performance.
Nina Simone never met Malcolm X face-to-face, but she did hear him speak in Harlem more than once and knew his wife, Betty Shabaz — a neighbor in Mount Vernon, NY. According to the Amsterdam News on April 17th, 1965, after Malcolm was killed Simone performed at the Apollo theatre as part of a benefit to raise money for his family.
Norman Jewison directed this film based on John Ball’s novel with a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant.
The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won five. It spawned a Peabody Award-winning TV series starring Carroll O’Connor as the white police chief William Gillespie, and Howard Rollins as the African American police detective Virgil Tibbs.
In the film, Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a detective who is mistakenly arrested for murder by a bigoted small town Mississipi police chief played by Rod Steiger
After it is revealed that Tibbs is a respected Philadelphia homicide detective, he stays on against his will to help the chief solve the murder. Grudgingly over the course of the investigation the two policemen slowly learn to respect one another.
Showtime has announced plans to resurrect the series, which will be set in the present day and tackle similar issues of race, class, justice and inequality with Tate Taylor (The Help; Get On Up) directing.
An absorbing Oscar-nominated documentary chronicling the complex and compelling history of the Mississippi voter registration struggles of 1961 to 1964, the interracial nature of the campaign, the tensions and conflicts, the fears and hopes.
The first black farmer who tried to register was fatally shot by a Mississippi state lawmaker. But by 1990, Mississippi had more elected black officials than any other state. The film features interviews and rare archival footage set against a soundtrack of blues and gospel songs.
Barred from political participation, Mississippi’s young black organizers created their own integrated party – the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They recruited 1,000 mostly white students from around the country to come to Mississippi, bringing the eyes and conscience of the nation with them.
The students and the MFDP organizers put together a delegation of sharecroppers, maids, and day workers to challenge the all-white delegates in the 1964 Democratic National Convention.