In the 1990s, some years after Nina Simone had fled America, the country that fueled both her meteoric fame and her crippling depression, she agreed to give an interview at her home in France. During the exchange, a seemingly sincere television personality asks her to gauge the how far the civil-rights movement had come.
“There aren’t any civil rights,” Simone says.
“What do you mean?” the bemused interviewer asks.
“There is no reason to sing those songs, nothing is happening,” Simone replied. “There’s no civil-rights movement. Everybody’s gone.”
Simone’s exile hadn’t been a sunny haze of Riviera vistas and Haut-Médoc wines. After spending some time in Barbados and two years in Liberia, she settled in Paris, where, broke, she performed in dingy cafes for a few hundred dollars a night. But still, she expressed no longing for the country where she’d been rich and famous.
The clip is from a new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which arrived on Netflix on Friday. The film is just one part of a renewed interest in the singer, with an accompanying tribute album set for July and two other Simone-related films set for release this year.
The timing of this particular release, though, is poignant. On the same day that the documentary was released, President Obama delivered a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the state senator and Emanuel A.M.E. pastor who was murdered by a white supremacist on June 17. What Happened, Miss Simone?, which gets its title from a Maya Angelou poem, focuses heavily on the years after Simone went from being an ambivalent activist to a pillar of the civil-rights movement.