HBO’s “Tina” opens with a thunderous greeting from Tina Turner: a clip from 30 years ago of the then-50-year-old singer in all of her silver-sequined, long-legged glory, demanding that a stadium full of people ask her how she feels. She then, of course, blows them, and us, away with her song “Ask Me How I Feel.”
You might think you know. After all, over the years, she’s given us her autobiography “I, Tina”; the biopic “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” starring Angela Bassett; and more recently, the Broadway musical “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” all dedicated to explaining to us the nuances, hardships, trauma and abuse the now-81-year-old singer has endured throughout her life.
“Tina,” though, offers something a bit different.
It technically begins with Turner’s musical arrival — into a new genre and a new style in the 1980s — but it also starts with a truth about her that is both obvious and long ignored. In 1981, five years after she filed for divorce from Ike Turner, she revealed the atrocities she experienced at his hand during an interview with People magazine in the hopes of quieting the constant questions about her former husband and their divorce. In telling her whole story in full once — including the abuse she witnessed as a child, the financial abuse she suffered and much more — the mega-star clearly thought she might never have to talk about it again.
But the opposite happened: Since revealing the most painful parts of her life to the world, Turner has been pushed to continue retelling the story, which has meant reliving and rehashing the most horrific moments in her life. Once she opened up to us, the world never stopped taking from her.
This is also a reminder that Black women are very rarely afforded soft spaces to expand and thrive.
“Tina,” then, is meant to be the one last time she’ll let us in. Told in five parts —”Ike & Tina,” “Family,” “Comeback,” “The Story” and “Love” — we hear about her life from Turner directly, filmed sitting in her Swiss estate in 2019. Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin documented the singer’s early years, her thoughts on motherhood and her will to make it.
They use archival footage and Turner’s memories to pull their audience into the past and right on stage with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, showing us that, even then, Turner’s public persona was dazzling. But, of course, behind closed doors, she suffered in silence during her 16-year marriage from the physical, mental and sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her former husband.
“Tina” forces us to relive those highs and lows, too; it is as glorious as it is heart-wrenching. Spanning six decades, we hear from Turner both in the footage recorded in 2019 and footage recorded previously. The detailed accounts of the terror, exhaustion, violence and dominance Turner experienced reminds us that the singer’s life was never meant to be survivable. It is also a reminder that Black women are very rarely afforded soft spaces to expand and thrive.
Instead, Black women are told to remain complacent and grateful whenever they achieve any semblance of success — and are told to cover up any wrongdoings that may be occurring behind closed doors, putting smiles on their faces while men and the world attempt to take ownership and credit for their bodies, their work and their genius. Turner decided to break everything wide open 40 years ago, refusing to sugarcoat or gloss over any of her experiences. In doing so, she forced the world to bear witness to her wounds, but she did not expect them to continue being poked and prodded for another lifetime.
Since revealing the most painful parts of her life to the world, Turner has been pushed to continue retelling the story, which has meant reliving and rehashing the most horrific moments in her life.
Yet through her Buddhist faith — and the Black women who came before her and those who would come after her — Turner made her path to freedom. In saving herself, first by running across a Texas highway, bloodied and beaten, and then by completely leaving her first marriage with only her name, Turner not only broke a pattern of generational trauma, but she showed us all another way. As playwright Katori Hall, Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey all say in the film, Turner has influenced us all.
And it wasn’t the first time. Using gorgeously remastered archival footage from her performances, often juxtaposed against other performers of the era like Diana Ross and The Supremes and Mary Wells, it’s clear that Turner was always an anomaly. At a time when people were still largely conservative, she was sexual, lusty and in your face.
It was a persona she would repeatedly reclaim for herself in her solo era. First, when she took back her life, identity, sound and performance post-Ike, it was clear how she was unleashing the shackles of shame that suffocate Black women. And then again, decades later, she dared anyone to say she wasn’t sexy or sexual when she was shimming and shaking directly in the face of ageism.
Black women are too often forced to suffer in silence or simply be put on display as walking trauma porn. Since she was stifled for so long, no one could have imagined that, in her late 40s, Turner would rescue herself and reinvent herself musically. Yet, to position herself outside of Ike Turner’s lens as an icon in her own right, even more of her labor was required. It’s almost devastating to imagine how even more monumental she would have been had she been loved properly and given the adoration, peace and ability to thrive from the very beginning of her life.
Turner’s story is another in a recent wave of movies documenting Black female musicians persevering despite people taking every opportunity to humble or confine them. From Lifetime’s “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” to “Genius: Aretha” to “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” there is a clear throughline in all of these narratives that isn’t just how miraculous and mega-talented these women are. There has been an obsession by society (and some men) to strip powerful and talented Black women of their agency and sense of self. These stories are all crystal-clear examples of the misogynoir — a term coined by Black feminist Moya Bailey to express the hatred and contempt for Black women, femmes and girls — that all Black women face to some degree.
But as the five parts of “Tina” come to an end, it’s clear the documentary is more than just that: It is Turner’s reflection, her thank-you and her true farewell. With a career that stretched back to 1957, the singer has given us more than we ever deserved. Now, she’s saving the rest of it for herself.