Coming to PBS’s American Masters today, Monday, January 18:
HOW IT FEELS TO BE FREE
American Masters (January 2020)
An exploration of the political activism and impact of six legendary Black female actresses and musicians.
Based on HOW IT FEELS TO BE FREE: BLACK WOMEN ENTERTAINERS AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, Yoruba Richen’s screen treatment profiles five of the women featured in Ruth Feldstein’s book – Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson – and swaps in Pam Grier instead of Miriam Makeba for the sixth spot. This multi-subject focus is a departure from the typical singular approach for American Masters, and a daunting one – each of these icons could and should receive their own standalone doc, or, at the least, would have benefitted from an episodic form instead. Richen and her panel of experts – Feldstein as well as historians, family members, and notable present-day performers – do succeed in drawing out compelling arguments and observations about how these subjects broke barriers in Hollywood and the larger entertainment industry, and, just as often, were frustrated in their efforts, as well as the more overt activism some of them engaged in, particularly around civil rights. At the same time, the need to balance six biographical threads lends a choppiness to the proceedings, and a sense that there’s far more to each women’s story than is possible to cover in the available time.