PBS broadcast (February 2021)
The story of singer Marian Anderson and the barriers placed upon her because of racism.
While not a household name today, for decades contralto Marian Anderson was heralded throughout Europe and the US as the “Voice of the Century.” While never an outspoken civil rights activist, her 1939 open air performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial – and the long controversy that led to it – marked a pivotal moment of dawning awareness by non-Black audiences of the pervasiveness and injustice of Jim Crow laws. Filmmaker Rob Rapley bookends his profile with this legendary event, telling the Black singer’s story in between, from early promise and success against the backdrop of segregation and racism to a life-changing and career-defining span of years honing her craft throughout Europe between 1927-1935 before returning to the realities of life as a Black woman in America. Little did Anderson know when she agreed to perform a benefit concert for Howard University in 1939 that she would be at the center of a national awakening about racism. Refused the use of a venue by its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the concert became a cause célèbre, spurred on by the canny efforts of Walter White at the NAACP, who used his friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to attract national attention. While the DAR embarrassingly stuck to its restrictive policies, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt allowed the concert to go on in front of the Lincoln Memorial, ultimately drawing 75000 attendees and millions via radio, and underscoring Lincoln’s pivotal connection to civil rights and freedom, something that had been shockingly downplayed if not buried in the decades since the Civil War. As with virtually all American Experience programs, Rapley’s follows its typical, workmanlike format, resulting in a somewhat muted sense of Anderson’s personality, but there’s still clear power in her story.