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Performers, Activists, Icons: New Film Looks at Legacy of Six Black Women

By BETH HARPAZ

A new PBS documentary pays tribute to six Black women who became cultural icons for their groundbreaking work in music, TV, and movies, along with their political activism and personal style.

The two-hour documentary How It Feels To Be Free looks at the lives and legacies of singer-actress Lena Horne, singer-songwriters Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, and actresses Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Pam Grier. 

The film was directed by Yoruba Richen, who heads the documentary program at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Richen deftly weaves together interviews and footage of the women’s performances to show their impact on how white America perceived Black Americans, and on how African Americans saw themselves. Richen’s other recent work includes documentaries on Breonna Taylor and the Green Book

How It Feels To Be Free premiered Jan. 18 and is streaming free until Feb. 16 at pbs.org/americanmasters. It takes its title from Simone’s song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and it’s based on the book How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement by Ruth Feldstein. Feldstein provides commentary in the documentary alongside Horne’s daughter Gail Lumet Buckley, Alicia Keys, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Lena Waithe, LaTanya Richardson and others. 

Horne and Carroll in particular are saluted for helping to sweep aside demeaning racist stereotypes in film and TV. Horne even wrote into her Hollywood contract that she would not play a maid. As a result, she was given speaking roles in just two films. In all the others, she was limited to singing in scenes that were easily cut for screenings in the segregated South. “They hadn’t made me a maid,” she said, “but they hadn’t made me anything else either.” Horne was also a strong (and glamorous) supporter of the civil rights movement. 

A generation later, in the breakthrough hit TV show Julia, Carroll portrayed, as she put it, a “middle class Black woman” whose story was not “about suffering in the ghetto.” She later played the fabulously wealthy Dominique Deveraux on the nighttime soap Dynasty. Tyson, meanwhile, got an Oscar nomination for her role in Sounder and won Emmys for her work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Simone and Lincoln were more overtly political in their careers as singers and songwriters. Along with Tyson, they also embraced a new Afrocentric aesthetic, for example, wearing their hair in natural Afros. 

Grier’s claim to fame was portraying action heroes like Foxy Brown in hit ‘70s Blaxploitation films. While some criticized the movies as stereotypical stories about crime and drugs, others cheered Grier as a strong, sexy female warrior. 

“There are not a lot of parts for leading ladies of color,” Berry said. “We really have to get behind the scenes and create these projects and tell our stories for ourselves.”