Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I was having a hard time figuring out how to use I Am Not Your Negro in my first-year composition course. This film by Raoul Peck, who is visiting UWM in a couple weeks, is based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. Samuel Jackson’s reading punctuates Peck’s interpretation of Baldwin’s work, a view of the Movement through the eyes of its assassinated leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Breathtaking as it was, I figured it was too much to ask students to untangle the many strands of the film, to reduce it to research techniques and methods.
In desperation, I came across the Netflix documentary about Nina Simone in my watch list. After watching a dozen minutes or so, it was clear that this was a much better alternative than I could have hoped. The title, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was the first clue that this film would work well as a way to introduce inquiry-based research. I typically do this by showing a documentary that opens with an explicit question (my favorite had been Metal: A Headbangers Journey) and demonstrates how that question guides the project. This film accomplishes this wonderfully, teasing out the reasons behind Simone’s departure from show business.
Another quality that I look for is a discussion of research methods. What Happened gathers an enormous sampling of interviews new and old, an archive of Simone’s diary entries, and historical footage from the Movement. Students aren’t required to conduct these finds of primary research but they are reminded that each one of these elements maintains focus on that central question.
And music – of course. I don’t know much about Simone’s past nor do I even pretend to know much of her work. But the songs that I do know are among the most potent examples of musical ferocity that I’ve encountered. Few songs can compare to the raw vulnerability and defiance of “Four Women” and “Mississippi Goddamn” for me. Curiously, the film omits the former and much of Simone’s discussion of her gender. Even the incredible “Aint Got No Money” serves as a backdrop for commentary and narrative.
The other qualities I look for in documentary examples are how sources of information work with one another. In the film, director Liz Garbus complements contemporary interviews with family and close friends with archived interviews with Simone herself. Occasionally, however, there are contradictions – especially when her ex-husband is featured. There also appears to be a conflict between Simone’s daughter and longtime friends over the medical treatment Simone received for manic depression.These make for good points that demonstrate to students how resources can “have a conversation” and can indicate a point of entry for research and interpretation.
Most importantly for our purposes are the flaws in these examples. As I’ve mentioned, there are moments where the clamoring forces manifest themselves. Perhaps not the intent of the producers and the Simone Estate, one gets the sense of the pressures Simone felt from family and friends, especially during the volatile Civil Rights Movement. While certainly necessary, the discussion of Simone’s depression and bipolar disorder is haphazardly implemented and, in my opinion, threatens to undermine the militant pride Simone had in her race and gender.
For these reasons – and others that emerge through discussion in class – What Happened, Miss Simone? offers a wealth of opportunity to discuss research methods and obstacles. After watching the documentary, I pose the following questions to the class:
- What is the overarching question that moves through the documentary? Where do you see this question being brought up? What are the contexts of those moments?
- Name the various forms of information collected to produce the film? How are these forms presented? What are some of the benefits of each? The problems each pose to the researcher?
- Where do you find moments where these resources “communicate” with one another? Where they agree, how do they relate to one another? Where they conflict, what purpose does that conflict serve?