In the 2013 HBO documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, credited as “A Film by Beyoncé Knowles,” Beyoncé compares her stardom to the artistry of Nina Simone, the singer and civil rights activist who was known for her political engagement and race-conscious repertoire. Following Beyoncé’s lead, I have compared and contrasted Beyoncé’s autobiographical documentary to the 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus). Although not literally autobiographical, What Happened, Miss Simone? makes extensive use of fragments of Simone’s personal diary and of her recorded spoken voice as voice-over, suggesting that the documentary does present Simone’s story in her own words. The two documentaries share the dominant themes of independence and motherhood, albeit in significantly different ways. Whereas Beyoncé speaks of artistic independence within the multibillion entertainment industry of the 2000s, Nina Simone speaks of Black political independence within white oppressive society of the 1960s and 1970s; whereas Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream presents motherhood as the ultimate goal of happiness, What Happened, Miss Simone? highlights Simone’s troubled relationship with her daughter.
Instead of making an audiovisual essay to be published, I made “In Their Own Words” as an audiovisual research exercise to see if working directly with the source material would change my perspective on the documentaries and on how the two stars relate to each other. I took an audio fragment featuring the star’s voice of one documentary and combined it with a visual fragment of the other, and vice versa. No editing or alterations were made within each fragment, although I did cheat with one visual fragment of Nina Simone that was intercut several times with talking head interviews (which I cut out). While I had expected that the exercise would reinforce my initial perspective that the glamorous superstar Beyoncé stands in juxtaposition to the political activist singer Nina Simone, combining them turned out to expose the similarities rather than the differences between the two stars. Selecting the fragments and bringing them together forced me to recognize the connection between Beyoncé and Nina Simone. I presented the video as part of a presentation at the annual NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) conference in Paris, July 2017.