One of the nastiest tricks the bastards ever played was to convince artists that it's best never to be strident. Nina Simone's still-vital "Mississippi Goddam," from 1964, is a grimly jaunty showtune, an uneasy experiment in which the song's form is almost torched by its own blazing content. Over a ramshackle shuffle of piano and guitar, Simone's indignation at outrages historical and then-current is at brilliant odds with the arrangement's showbiz flourishes. Between choruses, she rails at the institutions that had for so long punished black Americans, each charge in her litany fresh and raw and wearily familiar. When she consents to leap up into that chorus, the feeling of defiance is matched by relief: A song, like a country, can't hold so much injustice for long, and it really helps to shout about it.
So stridency may not necessarily harm art, but it rarely does much good for artists trying to survive in a world hostile to principled passion. "She got sidetracked with all these civil rights activities," complains Simone's onetime husband/manager Andrew Stroud in Liz Garbus's timely, arresting documentary. As Simone became more outspoken, she became harder to book. But she also felt she had found a calling: "I could sing to help my people," she says in the film, "and that became the mainstay of my life."
Garbus knows that the best films about musicians are about presence and music and unknowable personal complexities rather than redemptive arcs and pat explanations. She gives us time with Simone, excerpts her diaries and letters, and immerses us in the music. The tragedy is that everything in the film feels entirely of the now: South Carolina, goddam!