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AMERICAN MASTERS: How It Feels To Be Free

Stream now or tune in Wednesday, April 7, 2021 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2

This studio portrait shows American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone recli...

Credit: Courtesy of Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Above: This studio portrait shows American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone reclining on the floor circa 1968. Simone, whose deep, raspy voice made her a unique jazz figure and later helped chronicle the civil rights movement, died in her sleep on April 21, 2003 of natural causes after a long illness. She was 70.

Executive produced by 15-Time Grammy Winner Alicia Keys

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AMERICAN MASTERS “How It Feels To Be Free” 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.

How It Feels To Be Free: Trailer

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. Airing: 01/18/21

The film 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

CIRCA 1972: Actress Pam Grier poses for a publicity photo for her movie "Hit Man" circa 1972 in Los Angeles, Calif

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.

The role of women entertainers in the civil rights movement

Historian Ruth Feldstein, author of “How It Feels To Be Free,” talks about the important role that entertainers, and women entertainers in particular, had in the civil rights movement. This clip is an interview outtake from the AMERICAN MASTERS film of the same name. Airing: 01/18/21

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.

Lena Waithe on mixed feelings towards Blaxploitation

Despite the mixed feelings that many Black people have towards the genre of film, producer, actor and writer Lena Waithe says that "if Blaxploitation gives us Pam Grier I'll take it any day." Airing: 01/18/21

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.

Diahann Carroll talks race and makeup while filming "Julia"

Carroll tells the story of when she spoke up in an early makeup session for the TV show “Julia.” Airing: 01/18/21

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.”

Halle Berry on how seeing Diahann Caroll on TV changed her

In this outtake from "American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free," actress Halle Berry talks about the television show that "rearranged her" and made her realize that she "had value," demonstrating the importance of having role models in media. Airing: 01/18/21

Photo credit: Courtesy of Milan Zirnic

Executive Producer Alicia Keys

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.”

Alicia Keys doesn’t mind being compared to Lena Horne

The musician talks about why she admires Horne so much and how one of her dreams would be to play her. She also explains what she means when she says that she’s “ready to be free.” Airing: 01/18/21

Credits:

Produced by Yap Films in association with American Masters Pictures, ITVS, Chicken & Egg Pictures and documentary Channel in Canada. Michael Kantor, Alicia Keys, Lacey Schwartz Delgado, Mehret Mandefro, Elliott Halpern and Elizabeth Trojian are executive producers. Yoruba Richen is director. Michael Kantor is executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. Fremantle holds global distribution rights (ex-US and Canada).

“These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism,” said Michael Kantor. “We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.”

Harry Gamsu, Vice President of Non-Scripted Content Acquisitions, Fremantle, said, “Throughout the course of history, the stories of Black women have been consistently overlooked and ignored. Now we are witnessing incredible stories like these being told by Black women, and we are honored to be a partner in helping bring these voices to a global audience.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bettmann via Getty Images

Lena Horne, prominent singer of jazz who is also an actress, poses in a sequined gown.

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