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Mr. Dynamite (2014) & What Happened Miss Simone? (2015); And The Fascinating Lives of James Brown and Nina Simone

July 8, 2015

The United States has an ongoing history punishing its minorities who fit the bill of “young, gifted, and black”. The fates of millions of African-Americans throughout the 20th century alone, most notably Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, Robert F. Williams, and Martin Luther King lay stake to such a claim. If they were lucky enough to escape getting murdered, those who have used their talents to speak out against injustice were usually exiled by political threats, disillusionment, or defeated by stalemate progress. On the bright side, there are many who manage to keep their heads above water and secure an influential spot in the hearts and minds of the general population. James Brown and Nina Simone are two figures who did so in fascinating ways, both finding luck and longevity in their careers despite the oppressive times at which they rose to prominence.

Unfortunately, they endured punishment for their power and became crestfallen by their attempts to spark change during pivotal moments throughout their careers. In two brilliantly produced and engaging documentaries (now available on HBO and Netflix respectively), Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown and What Happened, Miss Simone? centers viewer’s attention on the diligent, ruthless work both entertainers exerted in order to use their talents outwardly before it destroyed them internally. In both cases, it did anyway.

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Mr. Dynamite on one hand, is a fast-driven look into the rise and success of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Interviews with band mates intermingled with rare photographs and compelling live performance footage introduces opens viewers eyes to James’ life and creed. A law unto himself from the day he was supposedly born dead, James is the phoenix that arose from the metaphorical ashes, or destitute, racist Jim Crow South to become one of the most influential entertainers of our time. Mr. Dynamite doesn’t delve into James’ notorious drug years, nor does it focus too much on his personal hang-ups, though that gets covered occasionally by his band former band mates. Instead, Alex Gibney’s captivating documentary finds focus on James as an American icon and how he reached such heights.

Together with a brilliantly talented backing band of musicians who assisted in James’ innovation, he broke the mold from the 1950s into 1970s creating the danciest, most influential style of music in recent memory. Nevertheless, it was James’ perseverance that aided him in breaking color barriers and succeeding in a racist system, a point that gets made clearly that throughout Mr. Dynamite. While Brown’s political interests have been controversial, and possibly misguided, his insistence on being politically involved during a period still riding the waves of the newly enacted Voting Rights Act is a pinnacle moment in his career tenderly explored by Gibney in Mr. Dynamite. Unlike the lackluster storyline of this years’ Get On Up, Mr. Dynamite aligns itself with the inspirational highlights of James’ social and political career such as his choice to uplift blacks in American fervently pushing for independence among the African-American community.

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What Happened, Miss Simone? weaves through the life of famed singer Nina Simone in a gentler, much slower pace echoing the soft placidity of her early musical styling and her partiality for classical music. Born Eunice Waymon, Nina grew into a groundbreaking artist active during the same period as James and going on to lead an equally impressive life with the combative push for revolution among blacks in America. Her thick baritone voice laden with a soft aura swooned listeners during the early days of her career as she played out beautiful ballads and classically inspired tunes. However, in the 1960s the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in Birmingham struck a chord deep within Nina pushing her to break ground and use her voice as an instrument for change. In 1964, she began her life long trek down a dubious path with her song “Mississippi Goddam.”

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Following the controversial song, Nina worked relentlessly on expressing her dissatisfaction with the then current state of America in her music. Director Liz Garbus details Nina’s transformation into a prominent figure in the music scene as well as the civil rights movement through footage of the singer walking side by side with Martin Luther King and members of SNCC. Nina’s foray into politics also propelled her to offer her to talents as a way to relive the stress endured by many blacks who participated in the marches to Selma, Alabama. Garbus analyzes this period with interviews from Nina’s then husband along with others by her side at the time as they detail how Nina’s flirtation with politics changed her demeanor. The input of those interviewed gets complemented by footage and photographs that showcase Nina’s evolution in style along with her values.

Nina’s fascinating life is captured through the stunning details revealed by those who knew her best. We are also treated to sound recorded interviews, film clips from talks with journalists, and her own words in interviews and diary entries to give validity to and understanding of Nina’s complicated nature. Garbus lets this highlight Nina’s bold tenacity in the face struggle. We are shown aspects of her life that forces an understanding of her insatiable need to keep fighting for her career even when the acclaim fizzled and she scrapped through rock bottom.

But, the focus of What Happened, Miss Simone? becomes Nina’s own struggles with herself. We hear heart-wrenching details of her life from her daughter that explain how Nina’s own personal demons nipped at their threads of their relationship. Equally we hear of the abuse she endured, sometimes by choice, from the hands of her then husband and manager. It makes for an intriguing contrast between Nina’s years enduring spousal abuse and furthermore dishing it to her own child, against James’ years of abusing the women closest to him.

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Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown and What Happened, Miss Simone? are two stunning and powerful documentaries that look beyond the rags to riches story of both these influential artists. Each film hones its focus into much more complicated territory exploring the politics, drive, and human qualities that both individuals possessed creating an inspiring tale of perseverance and empathy. If Mr. Dynamite is the explosive firecracker of a soul legend, then What Happened, Nina Simone? is the whizzing, colorful come down of soul singer. Both halves of an unintentional whole that should be seen in companion.

SEE THEM. Both are truly engaging, inspirational looks at fantastic figures in black culture.

What Happened, Miss Simone is now available on Netflix and Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is available online or on HBO Go.

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