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Film Review: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

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Nina Simone

By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic

Sometimes artistry and insanity are so intertwined you can’t distinguish between them. That was the challenge for singer Nina Simone; dealing with worldwide fame and a madness she couldn’t shake. As you look back at her life, from a child prodigy, to a dinner theater piano crooner, to renown recording artist and a sufferer of mental illness, the mystique of Nina Simone wanes and the reality of her life comes into view. For those who loved her music, but knew something was wrong with her, questions are answered and mysterious demons put to rest thanks to this thoroughly enlightening documentary.

Born in 1933 in Tryon, N.C., by age 4, Eunice Kathleen Waymor was playing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy. Her talent came naturally, her virtuosity honed by practicing almost all day. In her hometown, mentors collected money so she could afford lessons. She played in her Sunday church choir. As she looked for a higher education, her hope was to study at a prestigious music school, but her application was turned down. She thought she was rebuffed because she was Black, and that slight/humiliation caused an anger that festered for years.

Eunice found herself playing piano in a club in Atlantic City to make ends meet. When the owner insisted that she sing, she obliged, fine-tuning a deep contralto that would be her signature sound. Around that time, she became Nina Simone. Record deals, touring, marrying a NYPD sergeant named Andy Stroud who would become her manager/music producer – it all helped her career evolve. But there was always something troubling her. Fits of anger, lots of it focused on her daughter Lisa; rage at inattentive audiences. She became a militant and a composer of protest songs during the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement. Then was estranged from the United States, with stints in Barbados, Liberia and Europe. Nina Simone left behind her a trail of personal chaos, yet fans flocked to see their Nina.

Veteran documentarian Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA), with cinematographer Igor Martinovic and editor Joshua L. Pearson, pulls you into the brilliant storm that is Simone very early in the film’s opening sequences. The music. The lady. The voice. The masterful piano playing. The spirit. Quickly, from never-before-heard audiotapes recorded over 30 years, through archival footage, interviews with her daughter, her booking agent and the chanteuse herself, you feel as if you are in the presence of greatness. You go on the emotional rollercoaster that was her life. Her intelligence is evident in every frame. The mental illness that consumes her becomes more and more pronounced as the footage rolls on. It’s awkward. Off-putting. Scary. Yet, you’re glued to the screen.

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of the diametrically opposed parts of her life that are the most intriguing. The contradictions: Simon performs on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived TV series Playboy’s Penthouse; with the sophistication of an opera singer, she sings “I Love You Porgy” to a room full of nattily dressed White people. Frames later, she’s at a militant political rally talking about killing Whites as if it was just a forgone conclusion.

There is something so enthralling and yet sad about this nightingale who purred through jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop, singing her hits: “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Sinnerman,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” “To Be Young Gifted and Black”… Legends like Nina aren’t suppose to die…

“What makes me happiest, is when I’m performing and people out there feel me and I touch them,” Simone said to a room full of fans. Through What Happened, Miss Simone? fans can still feel her.

Visit NNPA Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.

Bay Area

Vice Mayor: Business Group Wants to Buy Coliseum, Attract WNBA Team

The group will provide additional details of its effort at a news conference at 11:00 a.m. Friday at a site to be determined.

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Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan.

Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said a local business group has made serious inroads to buy the city’s 50% stake in the Oakland Coliseum complex and to bring a WNBA team to the city.
Kaplan’s office shared a news release Monday about the effort by the African American Sports and Entertainment Group.

Kaplan said the group is in negotiations with the Oakland-Alameda Joint Powers Authority, has submitted a formal proposal to WNBA officials, and has submitted a term sheet to the city, which the City Council’s rules committee recently voted to advance to the full council for a vote.

The group will provide additional details of its effort at a news conference at 11:00 a.m. Friday at a site to be determined.

“I am pleased that there is such great interest in doing an important development at the Oakland Coliseum that will provide jobs, revenue and community positivity,” Kaplan said. “My goal is to help this process move forward before the summer recess.”

Kaplan said the group has the backing of more than 30 community groups of faith-based institutions, labor organizations, civic leaders, and job development organizations. She did not name the groups

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Books

Marcus Books at 60, the Oldest Black Bookstore in the U.S.

You can check out the titles they have in stock by visiting https://www.marcusbooks.com/ The store is open Monday-Saturday from 10:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:00-4:00 p.m.

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Image provided from Marcus Book Store Facebook page

Marcus Books is a Black-owned bookstore located at 3900 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA 94609. Named for United Negro Improvement leader and author Marcus Garvey, the store was founded by Tuskegee College graduates Julian and Rae Richardson in 1960. In the ensuing decades they have sold books produced by Black, independent publishers, authors, poets, and artists and hosted talks by a who’s who of Black writers ranging from the late Toni Morrison, to Michael Eric Dyson and Sistah Soldier. There is a substantial collection of books for children as well. Online shopping is also available. You can check out the titles they have in stock by visiting https://www.marcusbooks.com/ The store is open Monday-Saturday from 10:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:00-4:00 p.m.

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Art

In Colorizing the Characters in ‘Hamilton,’ Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda Whitewashes History

But he should also make sure we all know Hamilton was no hip-hop hero, just another founding slave holder. Miranda’s color change doesn’t change history, nor make it less distasteful.

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Photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton courtesy of cinemablend

Is there any doubt that Ishmael Reed is Oakland’s writer of conscience and consequence?

He was my teacher in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. From him I learned a number of truisms about writing. Like, for me, when in doubt, put in the Filipinos. Don’t take them out!  Another one was career advice. The more money you make, the less you get to say. Conversely, the less you make, the more you get to say. And that brings me to the topic of this column.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “In the Heights,” opened the movie version of the musical last week. It’s a gushing hydrant of diversity. It should make a lot of money. But when I talked to him a few weeks back I wanted to talk about his other monster hit, “Hamilton,” where Miranda applied what I call a little affirmative action. He put the Black and the Brown actors in the white parts.

The Founding Fathers got “Hamiltoned.” Revolutionary?

“Well, it’s interesting,” he said. “The idea when I picked up the book was it’s an R&B hip-hop musical so, of course, Black and Brown actors would play those roles. As I’m reading the book the first time, I’m picturing which of my favorite hip-hop artists should play Hercules Mulligan or George Washington. They were always people of color, and the music reflects that…I was sort of more surprised that everyone was surprised when we finally came out.”

“I think it kicks open the door,” he added. “Why are we so literal when it comes to this stuff? And you know, I see Shakespeare with people of every ethnicity playing the roles. Why can’t that be the case with our founders? We know what they look like – they’re on our f***ing money. So, like, let’s move forward here. But I think once you see a show that has had the diversity that we have on stage, it’s very hard to go back to sort of these all-white productions because you’ve got to ask why, what stories aren’t we getting when you see that?”

You still have to ask what you’re getting. Miranda got comfortable enough to cuss and didn’t like the term “affirmative action.” But was he rehabbing Hamilton, making him and the others better than they were by applying the hip-hop beat?

It was the perfect opening to ask a question about Reed, the MacArthur ‘genius’ award-winning novelist, satirist, and playwright who last year wrote  “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” a play that takes Miranda to task for the failure to highlight the real history of Hamilton.

Hamilton and his in-laws, the Schuyler family, were slave owners.

Miranda may have given the actors some tone, but the historical soul remains the same. Just obscured. Reed sees Miranda as duped by the Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda used as the main source for his skin-deep musical that glosses over our racist founders.

“I think seducing thousands of children and even the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman into believing that Hamilton and the Schuyler girls were ‘ardent abolitionists,’ must rank as a cultural crime,” Reed said to me.

As I asked Miranda my question about Reed, the PR rep cuts in: “We are actually out of time.”

Then Miranda says, “I got a long schedule, sorry. Thank you.”

It would have been interesting to hear his answer, with “Hamilton” beginning a new tour in August.

But this is megabuck showbiz, and the PR juggernaut must go on.

So, Miranda wiggled his way out. He could have answered. I gave him a shot.

Then again, Miranda’s got this new property to sell that’s a lot more cleansing and joyful. “In the Heights” is the feel-good movie of the post-pandemic, you know. All the fire hydrants are gushing.

But he should also make sure we all know Hamilton was no hip-hop hero, just another founding slave holder. Miranda’s color change doesn’t change history, nor make it less distasteful.

In fact, the 2021 tour for “Hamilton” is coming to San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose for multiple-week runs in August through October.

Will he come clean by then? Or come up with a new song? In the meantime, you should read Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.”  There’s no music to wash away the truth.

Emil Guillermo is a veteran Bay Area journalist and commentator. He vlogs at www.amok.com Twitter @emilamok

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