by Gary Suarez
Nobody waiting in the line outside the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem seemed to mind the dreary, wet and unseasonably cold New York weather, though perhaps it’s because they knew what awaited them inside.
Never mind the unlit “L” in the Apollo sign, the marquee stated the official program: a preview screening of the forthcoming What Happened, Miss Simone?, a new feature-length documentary about singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. From her ambitious beginnings in North Carolina, where the young aspirant born Eunice Waymon trained in classical piano, to her tenuous lifelong relationship with global stardom, the documentary follows her through the ups and downs of her life in music. Instead of leading with the narration, Director Liz Garbus lets the unpredictable and often brutally honest Simone tell her own tales through archival video and audio, including powerful renditions of “Mississippi Goddam,” “Strange Fruit,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” It is at times brazenly funny, though more often painfully sad as Garbus portrays the people in Simone’s life, including Simone herself, as far from saints.
The caliber of What Happened, Miss Simone? would have been draw enough to lure people out to a night at The Apollo. But the event’s worst-kept secret—a post-screening performance by Ms. Lauryn Hill—guaranteed the seats would be filled.