This hour-long portrait of Nina Simone at the height of her mesmerizing powers is an effective anecdote to the unacknowledged white privilege that poisoned the well in Mugabe and the White African.
Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews consists almost entirely, as promised, of footage of Simone performing on college campuses in what appears to be the late '60s or early '70s and talking to the camera about her art between interviews. (The movie never got a theatrical release, but it came out on DVD last year and is now available through iTunes and Amazon.) On the other side of the camera was Andy Stroud, who was at the screening last night and spoke a bit before the movie, which he said he funded by cashing in his police pension fund.
Stroud was Simone's husband and manager when he filmed the footage (though he didn't edit it into a film until recently), so he got excellent access. That includes watching Simone perform from backstage and capturing soundless sequences of her playing with their young daughter. Much more importantly, it also means getting access to the artist at her best—relaxed, undefensive, and confident that her audience understands and appreciates her.
There's nothing artful about Stroud's film, which includes clumsy tricks like cutting to white or black for a few seconds between takes or focusing on blurry discs of light, presumably to approximate the feeling of a trippy '60s light show. Yet it feels powerful and alive, capturing the vitality and significance of a politically engaged artist in her joyous prime. Stroud mainly keeps the camera on his glamorous, dazzlingly self-assured wife, lingering on her full-cheeked Nerfertiti profile as she sings her throaty, intense songs or pulling back for long shots of the West African-style dances she breaks into when the mood takes her. Her songs and the still photos of lynchings, blighted black neighborhoods, police dogs attacking protesters, and other atrocities that Stern sometimes inserts amount to an illustrated tour of America's shameful racial history. At the same time, her pride, defiance, and awesome artistry offer a vision of transcendence and triumph.
Simone was so far ahead of her time (she tells Stroud at one point that she's convinced she is not from this planet) that it's not until he turns the camera on the kids in her thrall that he captures the cautiously giddy optimism of the early stages of the Black Power movement his wife helped catalyze. You can actually see these fired-up young people, so used to holding themselves back in public—at least when there are white people around—learning to adopt the then-revolutionary habit of living out loud. Most are still tentative, holding themselves too stiffly or clustering shyly around Simone after a performance to search her face for clues, but some are clearly feeling the freedom. One young woman in the audience at Morehouse has a grin as wide as her face will hold. Stroud keeps going back to her, and no wonder: Looking at that smile is like feeling the sunshine after a wild summer storm.
After all these years and all the progress African Americans have made in mainstreaming their culture, it's still exhilarating to hear Simone say of the young black people in her audience, with her characteristic measured force, "My job is to somehow make them curious enough, persuade them, by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from." But even if she hadn't said it, Nina Simone Great Performances would have left no room to doubt what she's doing.
Last night's showing, which was sponsored by Target and the Maysles Cinema, was held in a Harlem church where I sat near a welcome but noisy electric fan. That got in the way of the music a bit, but it was more than made up for by the near-capacity crowd, which became an extension of the onscreen audiences. Simone refers more than once in the film to the legacy she hopes to leave. At one point, she tells Stroud that, even though her music is so firmly rooted in the political realities of her time and place, she thinks it's universal enough to live on after she's gone. If she could have seen her audience last night as they clapped, laughed, called out in response to things she said, and rose at the end for a standing ovation, she would have known she was right about that too.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.