What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”


“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.

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When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.

TV – The Wonder Years Episode 608 – “Kevin Delivers”

Kevin Delivers

I love those episodes that focus on one character doing one specific task or facing one particular problem. They provide unique insights, and the narrow scope really makes for rewarding character development and, for the viewer, an opportunity for introspection right along with the one or two characters who do the same. These episodes are also a surprise because they are a departure from the typical episodes that involve all or most of the cast having their typical conversations, interactions, fights, and reconciliations.

All of this was the case when I was watching The Wonder Years (1988-1993) tonight. I am re-watching the series on Netflix and have arrived at the final season. The second of two episodes I watched back to back was “Kevin Delivers” (25 Nov. 1992 – wri. Frank Renzulli, dir. Arthur Albert). After a “typical” episode involving Kevin’s 18-year-old brother, Wayne, meeting and moving in with a woman, I had that pleasant surprise (and a reminder because I didn’t remember) of an episode that focuses exclusively on one of Kevin’s nights out on his job delivering Chinese food. We all order delivery, but only a few of us have actually had a job as a delivery person. I love this show because I love the way it tells stories, so I appreciate the opportunity to see a typical night from the delivery person’s perspective. And in this case it is from Kevin Arnold’s viewpoint. It is the typical night, and he encounters the typical people—and deals with his “difficult” boss—all while trying to get to the end of the night so that he can take his money and go be with Winnie.

But, of course, there are obstacles. Kevin Arnold is a magnet for frustrating (and hilarious) setbacks. Even he frequently laughs at himself. And then there is the ending—the moment that reminded me why I love this show and makes me feel optimism in spite of every obstacle. It made me smile and really appreciate these episodes—the ones what focus on one or two characters on some quest, in the span of a day or a night—because they are a much-needed departure—an opportunity to slow down and be introspective along with the characters—and to learn something.

2015 Emmy nominations (Yay for Moss, Tomlin, and Mo’Nique)

Here are my thoughts about the 2015 Emmy nominees about whom I am most excited. View the complete list here. The 67th Emmy Awards will air on FOX at 8 p.m. on September 20, 2015.

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Elisabeth Moss – Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Mad Men
always and forever. My Elisabeth. My Peggy. Favorite television character of all time.

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With all the changes going on, Peggy holds her own. Refusing to be treated as less than a creative-director-to-be, her choices have shown she is well on her way to achieving everything she has set out to achieve since the day she began to believe that it was all possible. Pete says she’ll be a creative director by 1980, which strikes Peggy as flattering, but she is unsettled by the prospect of a ten-year wait. I believe she’ll be there quicker. And, yes, I approve of Stan. I have for years.

None of these outstanding traits of power, vulnerability, passion, and dedication would have been possible if Elisabeth Moss had not brought them to us. I have savored every single performance, and season seven is the culmination of Peggy as a woman who has figured out who she is. Moss has conveyed Peggy’s deep insecurities and brought her to a place of finding her own balance (not anyone else’s) of life as a career woman with love and friendships. It is her own balance because I do not for one second believe that Peggy actually believes in “balance.” She believes in getting done what needs to be done.

Moss can deliver facial expressions that convey everything from sarcasm to helplessness. She offers one liners that deserve to be in some sort of hall of fame. Also during part 2 of season 7 she delivers two iconic moments—her strut into her new office after refusing to even enter the building until it is ready, shades, cigarette, moving box, and confidently defiant look completing the message that she is there to take care of business and nothing else,—and her roller skating routine through the old building while reminiscing with Roger. Elisabeth Moss brilliantly conveys Peggy’s new security that has allowed her to be herself at a level we have never seen. That level will make her an even huger success in the future years. While I’d love a spinoff about Peggy (I say she’ll rule the world by 1979), I am perfectly willing to leave Peggy at the end of “Person to Person” and have fun imagining what she’s up to. Thank you, Elisabeth Moss, for bringing life to Peggy.

Christina Hendricks – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Mad Men

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Joan realizes that she is, above all, a woman who can and will stand on her own feet. Step by step, we see this emerge. She wants her life on her terms, and her friends and colleagues know her professional abilities and seek out her expertise. This is what leads to Holloway Harris (because two names sound better than just one, of course). I love imagining how things are going for Joan—because I know she won’t be operating out of her apartment for much longer. Hendricks has interpreted restraint like none other, and blowups that I will never forget. Hendricks’ gift of conveying, during part 2 of Mad Men’s final season, both verbally and nonverbally, everything that is Joan—knowing she is right when everyone else is clueless, feeling like, no matter how competent and frankly brilliant and smart she is, there are those who will only see her as an object, reveling in success but still feeling alone—is why Hendricks deserves this nomination, and why Joan Harris is a classic and unforgettable.

Mo’Nique – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie – Bessie

MoNique

Mo’Nique can do anything, and this nomination is just another representation of that. As a powerful and talented, yet compassionate true friend to Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) in Bessie, she yet again shows the layers of a character who makes a way for herself despite forces constantly at work to destroy her. She is a beautiful survivor, and when the film returns to her near the end after departing to tell us the bulk of Bessie’s story, I was so so happy to see her again. Mo’Nique makes that excitement possible.

For Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, congratulations to Mad Men’Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and Matthew Weiner for the third-to-last-ever episode, “Lost Horizon,” and for the series finale, “Person to Person,” respectively.

Lost Horizon   Person to Person

Of course, always and forever.
Mad Men – Outstanding Drama Series. Favorite television show of all time.
MadMenNominee

“Election Night” – Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series – Simon Blackwell (teleplay and story), Armando Iannucci (story), Tony Roche (teleplay and story)

VeepNominee

This episode had me on the edge of my seat and completed a reminder of how much I love this show and how good it is. A cliffhanger—why am I always surprised when there is one? There is always one, and I must admit I love it. Here is a bit of a conversation about today’s nominations with my friend Erin. Follow her blog here. (Yes, Jon Hamm has two nominations!) I will always stick by Veep.

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Lily Tomlin – Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series – Grace and Frankie

Tomlin

I love this show. It has me laughing until it hurts and I cry—especially the hospital scenes during the episode “The Fall.” I love Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. I more than love Jane Fonda (I adore, admire, and idolize her). I am thoroughly enjoying the performances by June Diane Raphael (Brianna), Ethan Embry (Coyote), Baron Vaughn (Nwabudike), and Brooklyn Decker (Mallory). But of everyone, Lily Tomlin most deserves to be the one to get this nomination. She has made me laugh and cry at once. She has made me sit and wonder about how I deal with my own problems. She has made me sit in amazement about her talent. Her character, Frankie, is a hippie who teaches art to convicts and makes (and cans) her own (organic) personal lubricant. She vlogs with her iPhone and burns incense and even convinces her foil and friend Grace (Fonda) to try these techniques to get in touch with her subconscious—and it works! She has her weaknesses and cannot get over her husband who has just come out (Sam Waterston). When she is low, I am with her. When she is up, I cherish every moment. Frankie, I am with you. I am with Lily Tomlin in the ups and the downs she goes on with Frankie. She is remarkable. Watch Grace and Frankie.

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Also, I’d like to acknowledge Viola Davis (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – How to Get Away with Murder—talk about conveying realness and complexity. You never know what is happening behind closed doors.), Cicely Tyson (Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series – How to Get Away with Murder—oh, the things a parent does for a child—the things that that child may never know. Tyson brings us all the human emotion involved with those choices and those confrontations), and Jon Hamm (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series – Mad Men—give this man an Emmy already.)

Mad Men for all time

Peggy quits Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Episode 511 - "The Other Woman")
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) quits Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Episode 511 – “The Other Woman”)

Mad Men is my favorite television show of all time. Peggy Olson is my favorite television character of all time.

It is only natural that I would be emotional about the end of the series. With the final seven episodes beginning on Sunday, April 5, I have compiled a list of the most pivotal moments (for me) that made me fall in love with the show for what it is–among many other things, a brilliant study in perspective, that we all experience events in our own ways shaped by our own experiences. Whether the story depicts an historical event or one that is personal and, as a consequence, very often universal, Mad Men always makes me consider what truth means and what I should do about it. This list only includes one episode as a whole, as my goal is to highlight moments, not entire shows.

1. The Drapers litter (Episode 207 – “The Gold Violin”). I was a “latecomer” to Mad Men. I watched a marathon of Season 2 on AMC and then bought the Season 1 DVDs to catch up before Season 3 started. At some point I also purchased the Season 2 DVDs just to watch that season again to make sure I’d “gotten it all.” Seeing the Drapers having a picnic in the park was nice. Then, Sally asks her parents if the family is rich, and she is told that it is not polite to talk about such things. Then, as the family is leaving, Don throws his can away–by hurling it into nature. And Betty shakes off the picnic blanket, leaving all of the trash on the ground. This was early in my exposure to the show, and I was shocked. Did people really do this? Certainly the setting seems situated at a time before the anti-litter ethos had taken hold in the nation. Here are these people in their own world taking this action, not considering the future (or not conceiving the concept of it in this context). I was enthralled by this.

2. Pete tries to sell televisions to negroes (Episode 305 – “The Fog”). Betty (January Jones) (brilliantly) gives birth to Gene in this episode. But this moment is about Pete. Yes, Pete has become a chronic cheater (I love Trudy (Alison Brie) for how she handles him) and is very “bad” at it. But there are aspects of Pete’s life and personality to which I can relate, and I root for him while others continue to write him off. And when it comes to race, those aspects make him stand out among people living life through their own perspectives with no intentions of making matters “harder” by recognizing their privilege. Pete realizes that it would be good for Admiral to sell televisions to African Americans. He speaks to Hollis (Le Monde Byrd), an incredulous elevator operator, about his television purchasing habits. He eventually relates to Hollis as a man, and Hollis warms up to him. This is not an ordinary occurrence. In Season 6 (Episode 605 – “The Flood”), when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination reaches everyone, Pete angrily reprimands Harry Crane (Rich Summer), head of the television department, for complaining about the assassination because it is bad for advertising dollars, saying, “That’s disgusting. . . . How dare you? . . . This cannot be made good! It’s shameful. It’s a shameful, shameful day! . . . [to Bert Cooper] Did you know we were in the presence of a bonafide racist?! [back to Harry] . . . Let me put this in terms you’ll understand: that man had a wife and four children.” Back in Season 3, when Pete is reprimanded by the partners for offending the client, who “has no interest in becoming a colored television company,” Pete expresses that he simply cannot understand why the agency would turn down the chance to make a profit. And in Season 6, while there are now black secretaries employed at SCDP, Pete still stands out for his whole-hearted views. I took notice from the start.

3. “The Suitcase” (Episode 407). This is my favorite episode of Mad Men. This episode focuses on the most significant relationship of the series–the relationship between Don and Peggy. They are both at their most vulnerable, and they share in that. The two argue about work–Peggy does not feel that Don appreciates her as much as he should (a common theme throughout the series). Don deals with Anna’s (Melinda Page Hamilton) death. Peggy ends a relationship and sees Trudy pregnant. Trudy’s idealized view of Peggy is not how Peggy sees herself. The two work alone (except when Duck shows up) in a dark office, go get a bite to eat, return to the office to work, and support each other both personally and professionally. While out for dinner, they broach the subject of Peggy’s pregnancy, an event that cements their connection because Don is there when she has no one else. Don tells personal stories from his past, which we all know is rare. And, in a funny moment, Peggy asks, “Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” There is no better episode, and there is no better work than “The Suitcase.”

4. Peggy struggles with intersectionality (Episode 409 – “The Beautiful Girls”). Because we all experience life from our individual perspective, (in my mind) life is about the moments when we realize that there are people who do not experience life the way we do, and no one exactly how we do, and how we deal with and act in those moments. I continue to be, in a profound way, struck by what Peggy says to Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) as they are discussing Civil Rights. While Peggy acknowledges that it is wrong–and not just for business–that a company would not serve negroes, Peggy does not quite grasp the concept that a company would deliberately hold their services and products out of reach of African Americans. Because she is so focused on her own ambitions and trying to navigate the sexist world in which she is paid less and treated like a second-class executive, she does not understand intersectionality, an “unknown” concept in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and before the Women’s Movement. Peggy remarks, “But I have to say–most of the things negroes can’t do, I can’t do either. And nobody seems to care.” “What are you talking about?” responds Abe, who is trying to get her to understand that “they’re not shooting women to keep them from voting.” And that’s the thing. Movements have gone one at a time because of how slowly liberty progresses in this country. Peggy is speaking from her world–her experiences. She has not seen outside it yet because it is all she can do to keep her head afloat as a woman. We see Peggy evolving, but it’s not easy. Life is about choices, and people choose to speak out in their own ways. Others don’t speak out at all out of self-preservation and survival. Because of those minutes of Abe and Peggy in that bar, I look at how all people, whatever their choices, have (in my mind) the responsibility to consider their own privilege, whatever it may be, and act accordingly. This is complicated, but necessary. Thank you, Charlie Hofheimer. Thank you, Elisabeth Moss. Thank you, writers Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner.

5. Don calls Betty a whore (Episode 313 (finale) – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”). There is something about Don Draper that makes me root for him as he navigates his way through life. His difficult childhood, his charm, his brilliance at his work, and, I admit, his picture-perfect exterior (albeit phony) image he portrays are all part of what elicits my empathy. The moments of genuine happiness he shares with his family (which I associate with this absolute gem–This is “The Carousel”–Don’s pitch in the Season 1 finale–Episode 113 – “The Wheel”) make me appreciate his rise from poverty to Madison Avenue, even when there is ugliness beneath. But there is nothing–not even his speech to Hershey’s–which I welcomed even if it is extremely bad for business and ultimately results in a forced leave of absence–nothing that excuses what he says to Betty after she’s finally had enough of his infidelity and decides to leave him. “You’re a whore, you know that?” says an indignant Don. These sexist views are totally his personality, and I have to listen to people who have always hated him, which I don’t understand because the show is about his struggle for the “American Dream,” and everyone knows he is deeply flawed, as we all are. But still, I will never forgive him for that, and while I root for him, those words from him are a lingering and permanent taint, above everything else he has said and done. I thank Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy for writing this truth. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

TV Guide cover by Jeff Lipsky. Click photo to view more photos from this shoot. You won't regret it.
TV Guide cover by Jeff Lipsky. Click photo to view more photos from this shoot. You won’t regret it.