Author: Stephen Weir | Date: 28 January 2021
Yes when you look south you realize it is a tough time to be anything but white in the Land Of The Free these days. But, as veteran American actress Pam Grier says “ our culture is revered and it inspires people all around the world."
How It Feels to Be Free is a new documentary movie that airs on CBC’s GEM TV on February first. The full-length movie celebrates six iconic Black female singers and actresses (including Grier) and documents their fight for diversity and inclusion.
Toronto’s Yap Films worked with singer Alicia Keys to produce this revealing look at the American dream machine. How It Feels to Be Free, tells how six trailblazing performers, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson, and Pam Grier, changed American culture through their films, fashion, music, and their politics.
It is all about the politics of being Black in the American entertainment industry. Did you know that even though Lena Horne was signed to a lucrative film studio contract in the 60s she was only allowed to speak in two of her movies (she sang in the rest)? Or that Max Factor came up with a special darkening makeup, Egyptian Tan, so that she could play “the tragic mulatto”, in the film version of Showboat. Horne didn’t get the part, and the white actress who did (Ava Gardner) wore the make-up on screen.
The documentary features archival performances and interviews, new interviews including a two that were done here in Canada, from some of the best including Alicia Keys, Lena Waithe, Halle Berry, Samuel Jackson, and Canada’s Sharon Lewis. It is based on the best-selling book How it Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement by Ruth Feldstein.
“So much amazing footage to work with!” Elizabeth Trojian, Yap film’s CEO and producer, told me online last week. “We used archival footage from the women’s careers and photos and footage of the women taking part in the civil rights movement and performing political songs – to show the depth and breadth of their activism.”
“We also used amazing clips of the women on screen that showed how they re-shaped how Black women were represented such as the ground-breaking roles of Diahann Carroll, action sequences of Pam Grier kicking butt, and close-ups of a dignified dark-skinned Cicely Tyson. We also chose archival footage that showed the evolving style of the women and how their choices of hairstyle and clothing were political statements.”
Yoruba Richen, an American film producer and director, known for the films The New Black and 20/20. She started work on this documentary five years ago after reading the 2013 award-winning book by Feldstein.
“The stories of the unique role that these women played in the Black freedom struggle both on screen and off had never been told nor had the evolution of the entertainment industry been chronicled through their experiences,” said Elizabeth Trojian. “Richen loved how the book placed the stories of these women at the intersection of American arts, politics, and culture, and at the nexus of the civil rights movement and the burgeoning women’s rights movement.”
Much of the filming was done in the United States before Yap came onboard to produce and edit the film. They also filmed Toronto interviews with actress and director Sharon Lewis (Brown Girl Begins) and film critic Radheyan Simonpillai (NOW Magazine).
The title of the movie comes from the Nina Simone song I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free. The late Nina Simone was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. She did it all: classical, jazz, blues, folk and R&B.
We see her singing live in the film as we do most of the other stars. How It Feels To Be Free is very much a music driven flick, although spoiler alert, none of the songs are sung in their entirety.
“While there isn’t a soundtrack for the film, we’ve featured some great and timely music. Naturally, you’ll hear the sounds of Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, but that’s also coupled with music of the various era’s that the film takes place in – ranging from the jazz piano styling of Hazel Scott in the 1940’s to the 1968 funk-filled chant James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud”.
The movie airs on the first of February on CBC Gem (CBC Gem is available for free as an App for iOS and Android devices and online at cbcgem.ca, and on television via Apple TV and Google Chromecast). It is also currently available for streaming on PBS.