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How it Feels to be Free covers the careers of Abbey Lincoln, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier.documentary Channel

Actress and singer Abbey Lincoln appeared in the 1956 movie The Girl Can’t Help It, a musical comedy that was a vehicle for Jayne Mansfield. Lincoln had a supporting role but a memorable one. She performed the theme song wearing a dress that had been worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and she made an instant, vivid impression. “She was a chanteuse in a sexy dress,” one of her friends says. And she was suddenly a star.

A few years later Lincoln changed direction and burned the dress by throwing it into a furnace. As she said later, “It was a hand-me-down from a white woman.” Influenced by Billie Holiday, Lincoln turned to jazz and spiritual, wrote her own material and became a Civil Rights activist.

You can find footage from all portions of Lincoln’s career in the wonderful documentary How it Feels to be Free (streams on CBC Gem), which covers the careers of Lincoln, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier. Made originally for PBS’s American Masters, it was produced by Toronto-based Yap Films and Alicia Keys is an executive producer. It’s a scorcher, a fabulous journey to that place where art and activism meet in the stories of these Black women artists.

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It was years in the making and you can see why – there is a ton of amazing archival footage of impassioned, scorching performances, movie scenes and scathing political speeches. It’s an American journey but one that resonates universally, taking the viewer not only to those performances but deep into the politics of race and gender in the U.S. entertainment industry.

The story of Lena Horne gets a good airing with plenty of footage and anecdotes told by her. In her early twenties and a star in New York, mainly from her work onstage at the Cotton Club, Horne decided to give Hollywood and the movies a shot. Her father, a wealthy businessman, scoffed that she’d be stuck playing the maid to a white woman. Horne went to L.A. and at MGM boss Louis B. Mayer took a liking to her. Then her dad arrived one day and breezed into Mayer’s office telling him in no uncertain terms that his daughter wasn’t going to play maids or run around like a savage in some Tarzan movie. As Horne tells it, Mayer had probably never met a successful Black man who could order him around. He was very intimidated.

Horne starred in the all-Black musical Cabin in the Sky, but one number from that film was cut – Horne singing Ain’t It the Truth while taking a bubble bath. The public story was that it was thought to be too suggestive but Horne and others relate that the studio was afraid of alienating southern white audiences who would only tolerate Blacks in subservient roles.

The stories of Horne and Diahann Carroll are intertwined. Carroll was the first Black American to win a Tony Award for best actress and was a formidable force. But as Halle Berry tells it in the program, the matter of skin colour complicated everything. At that point, we’re taken into the strange world of the recent past where movie and TV executives fretted about how black a Black actress could be to succeed.

In the case of Nina Simone, she wore her activism on her sleeve and never hid it, being far more direct and blunt in her politics than most. In the program you can see Simone appearing on The Steve Allen Show in 1964 and, aware of broadcast standards, refused to give the full title of her protest song Mississippi Goddam. So Steve Allen said it for her.

There is also much to glean from the career of Cicely Tyson, who died recently at 96. Tyson, from East Harlem in New York City, was a model in her youth and studied at the Actors Studio in her twenties, but it would be the 1970s, decades into her career, that she had success in film and TV. There was always a reluctance by the powers-that-be to acknowledge her talent.

There is much in the two-hour gem of a program that’s instructive about race, Hollywood and the role that so many women played as activists. On top of that, the footage used is, in itself, a visceral, astonishing encounter with talent and creativity. Abbey Lincoln – a largely ignored figure – is unforgettable in both stages of her career. Damn right she burned that dress.

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