Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

Wednesday, April 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

Rice alumna produces Oscar-nominated documentary


Amy Hobby and Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, promoting Hobby’s film “What Happened, Miss Simone?” at Take 2 Film Festival. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” follows the life of Nina Simone, acclaimed jazz musician and civil rights activist. Hobby championed the film, nominated for “Best Feature Length Documentary” at this year’s Oscars, for bringing strong black female voices into public life at a time when few recognized films do so.

By Thresher Staff and Ryan Lee     2/22/16 9:14pm

A documentary that neither Netflix viewers nor Oscar voters can ignore, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” weaves through the life and music of jazz legend and civil rights activist Nina Simone. As one of the most recognizable African-American voices of the 20th century, Simone laid her fingerprints on the culture of many generations. Directed by Liz Garbus and produced by Rice alum Amy Hobby (Will Rice ‘86), the film has been nominated for Best Documentary in the upcoming Academy Awards.

During her time at Rice, Hobby found her place in the Rice Media Center. She fell in love with the relatively young film program and thrived in its small classes. Three decades after graduating from Rice, she found herself fascinated by Nina Simone’s story.

“I had worked with director Liz Garbus before and she called me to talk about doing the film on Nina,” Hobby said. “I saw a woman of intensity and complexity, and that's what drew me to the idea instantly.”

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” paces through Simone’s childhood training as a classical pianist, her unexpected transition to jazz, her outspoken participation in the civil rights movement, her self-imposed exile from the public sphere and her eventual return. Garbus and Hobby succeeded in creating a film that belongs unequivocally to Simone. They successfully navigate the trade-off between narrative structure and attention to detail. Especially in the documentary world, the all-too-convenient storyline comes with the subject’s own caricature, but when this happens, the density in material becomes a reenactment of a Wikipedia page. The film commits neither crime, tethering the plot to consistency while unpackaging Simone’s character for the audience. To the film’s benefit, the “talking heads” are mainly limited to her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly and her guitarist and musical director Al Schackman. Kelly’s complicated relationship with her mother and Schackman’s brotherly affection for his collaborator allow for the narrative to strike a deeply personal tone. While it is common for a biopic to drag through a musician’s “Greatest Hits,” this documentary takes advantage of the fire inside Simone’s performances that completes her characterization.

“Miss Simone” stands out from its fellow Oscar contenders in two ways. One is in its high profile of addressing the racial politics of the country, which is fitting given the Academy’s lack of diversity over the past two years. The other is that of the five nominated documentaries, “Miss Simone” is the only one helmed by female filmmakers. In a Variety piece on the well-known gender disparity in the Oscars, Garbus talks about being treated unfairly in another project by a male colleague. To address the gender bias in the film industry, Hobby founded her company Tangerine Entertainment with fellow filmmaker Anne Hubbell.

“We met one day after one of these meetings and she said, ‘I want to work with more women directors,’” Hobby said. “We looked up the statistics and boom! We found something we could get behind.”

The mission statement on their website includes the tagline: “An innovative production company and community builder for films by women.” The company runs the Juice Fund, a means by which supporters can donate money to help women directors find a home for their vision. These efforts have helped advance the careers of filmmakers, including Caryn Waechter and Stacie Passon, and continue to level the playing field today.

“Our next project is Rose McGowan's feature film debut called ‘Synesthesia,’” Hobby said. “And we are in talks to launch a few things that will give women a way to easily take action to support women storytellers.”

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is currently available for streaming on Netflix. The 2016 Oscars Awards ceremony will take place on Feb. 28.

More from The Rice Thresher

A&E 4/17/24 12:00am
Super Smash Bros. ultimate tournament sees smashing success

The Super Smash Bros. Club held their second annual ultimate tournament Friday, April 12. Club president Jashun Paluru said all Smash players were welcome, regardless of ability, experience or involvement in the club. The event was held in collaboration with Owls After Dark, a late-night activity series headed by the Rice Student Center, at the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall.

A&E 4/16/24 11:07pm
Tribute band ‘Suede Hedgehog’ talks inspirations, legacies

Last Thursday, the halls of the RMC were graced with smooth melodies and funky grooves courtesy of “Suede Hedgehog,” Rice’s very own tribute band to “Silk Sonic,” a musical duo made up of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Although the tiny desk concert only lasted about 20 minutes the atmosphere was electric, and Coffeehouse — their venue — was packed with listeners.

A&E 4/16/24 11:07pm
Seniors showcase their artistic journey in ‘Opia’

“Opia,” the title of this year’s visual and dramatic arts senior showcase, is defined by the artists as “the intense vulnerability of looking someone in the eye, and the beautiful discomfort of seeing yourself reflected in their gaze.” These concepts of introspection and interpersonal connection resonate powerfully across the diverse bodies of work produced by a class of 17 artists, who will open up their showcase to the Rice community on Thursday April 18.


Please note All comments are eligible for publication by The Rice Thresher.