What Happened, Miss Simone?

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ producer Jayson Jackson

*Directed by Liz Garbus, the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone? is currently streaming on Netflix, and explores the artist’s powerful presence at her concerts, her civil rights activism and politics – and how all affected her relationships with her family, friends and collaborators, which were complicated and frequently difficult.

The doc was nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Liz teamed with Nina’s daughter Lisa Simone, along with producers Amy Hobby, Justin Wilkes and Jayson Jackson, to create a vivid project that Jayson tells EUR/Electronic Urban Report is Lisa’s “last attempt at telling her mother how much she loves her.”

During our recent chat with Jayson, he discussed the filmmakers’ approach to crafting the doc,  the Oscar buzz and excitement, and he shared his opinion about the forthcoming “Nina” biopic starring Zoe Saldana.

Describe the journey of emotions you experienced once you learned the film had earned an Oscar nomination?

Jayson: It’s an amazing experience and an exciting journey for Nina to be recognized in that way, and I think it reality validates the struggles and the challenges that she faced in her own life and times that people would respond to the film in the way that they did. It was an amazing process starting from premiering the film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 – to the long arduous haul of film festivals and screenings and the short list, then finally getting nominated, that culminated with that evening at the Academy Awards. It was an amazing journey and honor to be involved in the whole thing.

What were some of the first steps you took in researching Nina’s life to help develop this engaging story?

Jayson: It would have to start with Nina’s only child, her daughter, Lisa Simone. She and I had been working together for roughly two years, and we were doing some different things with the estate and actually thought about doing s stage play about her mom’s life story, but the more stuff we uncovered and the more research we did, it felt better suited for a documentary. I think telling Nina’s life story accurately is the first step. Lisa giving access to her mom’s diary’s and writings that she had was really an amazing process to see exactly what Nina was thinking on different occasions. It really gave us a window into what was really going on in her life in all that turbulence, and that was when the ball really started rolling. Liz Garbus, our amazing director, put together an amazing archival team, headed by a woman named Mary Recine, who did an amazing job, along with our other producer Amy Hobby, of really tracking down all the TV interviews, audio interviews, and any written stuff about Nina from the last four decades.

The doc shows us Nina the performer, and Nina the activist, and Nina the battered wife – did you discover any additional compelling information about her that had to be omitted from the final cut due to time constraints?

Jayson: None whatsoever, and two people I have to really acknowledge in the process. One is Lisa Simone, in her unflinching ability to allow us unfettered access to her mother’s life and her story. She never turned away at the tough parts about her mom’s life. She actually had a real mission to get all of those things exposed. It was a really cathartic experience for her. And she described this process of taking this film as really her last attempt at telling her mother how much she loves her, and really sending her off in the right way.

Secondly, Liz Garbus, who never flinched away from showing the tough parts about Nina’s life and really making the bold statement and putting it forth in the film that we all have issues, and showing how that didn’t affect and how it did affect Nina’s art. Liz showed all the complexities of Nina’s life, but showed it through her music, which is why we’re all so intrigued by her story in the first place. And really, how her personal life played into the music that she made, and how she chose to put it out there in the world.

In the doc, Nina tearfully apologizes for not becoming this great classic pianist that everyone had hoped. Some say, even her friends and colleagues, that her civil rights activism hurt her career. Did Lisa ever speak on whether or not her mother had any regrets?

Jayson: I think towards the end of her career she felt at peace with all that happened but honestly, classical music clearly shown in the film was her first passion, She bristled at being called a jazz singer, cause she felt that that she was much more than that. The same way that she bristled at being called just a civil rights activist. She felt that she was much more than that. Nina, as brilliant as she was, could not turn away from the times in which she lived, and how amazing is it that she rose to that challenge and was able to use her talent and her gifts to actually bring a voice to her times and what was going on and speak out against all the things that were happening against black folks.

At the beginning of the documentary, Nina says to the audience, ‘You don’t understand me, you don’t know what I mean when I say I’m tired . . . this is my last jazz concert and I’m graduating to a higher plane.’ Did the filmmakers ever discover what she meant by that?

Jayson: We never did. We only could sort of piece together some stuff and come up with a hypothesis and this is clearly mine, I would not want to speak for Lisa or Liz, but I think Nina was not really happy about the grind of being a popular artist, and when I say grind, I mean the constant touring. The constant having to show up and sing the same songs that you’re well known for. I think Nina was speaking toward that. She really wanted to be a free wielding musician, in the highest sense of the form, but the demands of a music career really entails that you sort of retread over the material that fans deem popular to make a living at that level. At times, we’ve seen great artists turn their backs from fans requesting that they play those same songs that they made 20 years ago, because they feel like their artistry is just as important currently as it was back then. I think that’s what Nina was bristling against and why she said she was graduating to a higher plane, cause she talked about not playing at Jazz festivals anymore. I don’t know that she consisted herself a jazz artist quite honestly.

What’s your take on this “Nina” film and the controversy about Zoe Saldana starring as the singer?

Jayson: I read the script, and I didn’t think it was that bad a script. The only issue I had with it personally, and also Lisa Simone had with it personally, is that there were a couple of misconceptions in it, and non-truths. When Lisa spoke directly with the writer about potentially getting involved and giving estate permission to move forward with it, she just said,  ‘Look, if you just tell the truth, I have no problem with this film.’ But there’s a couple pieces of it that aren’t truthful, and those were the grounds on which Lisa decided not to get involved with the film, and clearly, from the documentary and her involvement in it, you can see that she had no issue shying away from the tough parts about her mom’s life, or her own life for that matter. Her issue with that film was really that, there were some liberties taken in it to fictionalize the account and I assume make to make it more entertaining for that two hour feature film, and that sort of standardized way in which they present those things.

In terms of Zoe Saldana being cast, (she) is a fantastic actress. I did find it a little odd that they cast someone who clearly wasn’t as dark-complexioned as Nina, didn’t have the same features as Nina, which sort of defined her art and her defiance and stance on discrimination and racism. I found that really interesting, when there are so many actresses out here who could’ve played that role, like Viola Davis and Danai Gurira. I just found the casting a bit perplexing, but Hollywood is Hollywood, and Hollywood is in the business of selling tickets to put people in the seats of theaters, and I say Hollywood loosely.