Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free, is an upcoming documentary film that tells the inspiring story of how six iconic African American female entertainers – Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier – challenged an entertainment industry deeply complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, and transformed themselves and their audiences in the process. The film, which is slated to premiere in early 2021 on PBS and on documentary Channel in Canada, features interviews and archival performances with all six women, as well as original conversations with contemporary artists influenced by them, including Alicia Keys, an executive producer on the project, Halle Berry, Lena Waithe, Meagan Good, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson and other luminaries, as well as family members, including Horne’s daughter Gail Lumet Buckley.

Based on the book “How It Feels To Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement” by Ruth Feldstein, the film tells the story of how these six pioneering women broke through in an entertainment industry hell-bent on keeping them out and situates their activism as precursors to contemporary movements like #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter. Award-winning director Yoruba Richen (The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, POV: Promised Land, Independent Lens: The New Black) examines the impact these trailblazing entertainers had on reshaping the narrative of Black female identity in Hollywood through their art and political activism while advocating for social change. The film highlights how each woman – singer, dancer and actress Lena Horne; jazz vocalist, songwriter and actress Abbey Lincoln; Tony-winning actress, singer and model Diahann Carroll; jazz, blues and folk singer Nina Simone; actress and model Cicely Tyson; and actress Pam Grier – harnessed their celebrity to advance the civil rights movement.

Director Yoruba Richen said, “At this unprecedented time of racial reckoning and as Hollywood is reassessing its role in perpetuating racist stereotypes, now is the perfect moment to tell the stories of these path-breaking women who have inspired generations of Black female superstars – like Keys, Halle Berry, Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe – who continue to push boundaries and reshape how African American women are seen onscreen.”

Executive producer Alicia Keys added, “I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project. Art is the most powerful medium on the planet, and I continue to be inspired by and learn from these powerful, brave and stereotype-shattering women who leveraged their success as artists to fearlessly stand up against racism, sexism, exclusion and harassment. I honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.”

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