The documentary How it Feels to be Free, directed by Yoruba Richen examines six pioneering, ironic black women at the crossroads of politics, culture, fashion, artistry and entertainment. These are Abby Lincoln, Lena Horne, Pam Grier, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll and Nina Simone. This exceptional film reveals how these amazing women of different backgrounds and talents were mavericks in their own time and for all time. Richen, using commentary from social activists, black feminists, critics, children and others in the entertainment industry identify how and why these trailblazers changed the historical and national perspective about black women, thus changing the nation’s perspective about black culture.
Richen begins with Abby Lincoln and focuses on a red dress she wore to indicate the importance of black identity in a white world of Hollywood. Then through various social categories like the culture of the film industry and awakening to black identity, Richen reviews how each of these icons braved the struggles of racism and discrimination and overcame them forging a path for all those who came after.
Additionally, she covers how each of these women were activists in their own right using their careers to move the culture away from racism toward economic, and cultural freedoms and voting rights something which we fight for today. These women spoke out against injustice, police brutality and discrimination in a myriad of ways. By singing songs they wrote that highlighted the hells of racism. And by selecting film and TV roles which vaulted them to a wider perspective so that the white culture could understand black culture and make strides toward equality.
Abby Lincoln was an American jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress. She was a civil rights activist beginning in the 1960s. Lincoln made a career not only out of delivering deeply felt presentations of standards but she wrote and sang her own material that stretched the limits of songstresses at the time with an undercurrent of black activism and anger. Lincoln, always her own woman, wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and sang a hot, sexy number for the film The Girl Can’t Help It. However, she resisted the labels and the definitions of Hollywood. Throwing out Monroe’s dress to burn it, she treated it like a rag and said she wasn’t keeping a white woman’s “hand-me-downs.” Her independence, brilliant artistry and strength were known to the NYC Village crowd and black artists like James Baldwin. But the same independence frightened off jobs and kept her limited a good part of her life, though she appeared on talk shows to discuss her life and career.
As Richen melds clips of the commentators discussing each of the topics as well as the women themselves, we hear and see fascinating stories. The black character in films were types, maids, servants typical of the two black women icons in Gone With The Wind, ladies maid, Butterfly McQueen and Mammy, Hattie McDaniel. American actress, singer-songwriter, and comedian. McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, becoming the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939. Despite fabulous performances over the years from Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg, it was Halle Berry who was the first black woman to win an academy award for lead actress in her role in Monster’s Ball in 2002. No black woman had won since Hattie McDaniel.
As Richen follows each of the women, we learn of their beginnings, the twists and turns in their careers because of their skin color. For example Nina Simone a concert level pianist and brilliant woman, valedictorian of her class instead of going to Julliard,she decided to apply for a scholarship to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite of a great audition, she was rejected and Simone herself said it was because of her skin color. She didn’t let that stop her. She ended up using her talents to accompany herself and sing jazz, R & B, show tunes, but her music style included every genre of music there was and if there wasn’t, Simone originated it and created her own songs, music and lyrics as a one-of-a-kind. An activist, her music reflected the growth of the civil rights movement. In a twisted irony that knows no bounds, the Curtis Institute of Music awarded her an honorary degree in 2003, days before her death.
Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll and Pam Grier were accepted into Hollywood. Horne first, who shares a story about her father strong-arming Louis B. Mayer about the type of roles he wanted his daughter to play. From a clip on the Dick Cavett show, Horne tells Cavett that her father, a gangster, wore a diamond stud pin. And he affirmed to a wide-eyed Meyer who couldn’t be daunted that he could buy his daughter whatever she wanted. She didn’t need to be in pictures. He used that as a preface to wanting to showcase her with dignity, honor and beauty as a representative of the “Negro.” Throughout her career, Richen uses interview clips of Horne discussing the trials she faced in looking for roles in pictures which were few. Thus, she supplemented her career with TV and as a singer. And the occasional film came her way, but black actresses weren’t offered the types of roles that white actresses were offered.
Thus, Cicely Tyson who was careful to select the types of roles that would feature her talent, managed to lift herself up from the stereotypes of black actresses as did Diahann Carroll who also had a substantial career on TV. And both actresses created a body of work that brought them films for which they were Academy Award nominated. However, it was Diahann Carroll who was the first black women to star in a TV series in a non servant role as Julia. And it ran for 86 seasons. She paved the way for other black women on TV series and of course, black men. Equally, carrying the dignity and talent of their body of work, they also were civil rights activists like Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Abby Lincoln.
Richen coverage of Cicely Tyson who died in January 2021 includes her own TV interviews and interesting stories. There is one in which someone used the “N” word to refer to her and she threw an ashtray and hit and bloodied the man. The incident appeared in the paper to great acclaim from blacks who applauded her. Richen indicates. She was a giant of a woman of small physical stature but great nobility. Her whose career spanned more than seven decades playing icons and ferociously loving and strong black women. Tyson received three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award. She was also given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What is fascinating about the blaxploitation films of the 1970s that Pam Grier starred in was that they saved Hollywood from its losses to TV. Grier was the first black female action star in Coffy, Foxxy Brown, and other films that showed off her intelligence and cunning in catching white and black criminals. Richen indicates that Grier’s body of work, different from the other actresses and singers, revealed that black women couldn’t be labeled to type. They could forge their own brilliance. In Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Pam Grier, he wrote and directed the film Jackie Brown for which Pam Grier received a Golden Globe, SAG, Satellite and Saturn Awards. She has received two honorary Ph.Ds. and continues to work in films that will be coming out this year.
How it Feels To Be Free is a testament to the stamina and grace of these women as the precursors to the black Queens who are currently coming into their own. However, though Richen shows the progression and evolution of black women in the arts and how they used their talents to gain their freedoms in the culture, we are not there yet. There is much work to be done. And the strides that have been made only recede when someone like Donald Trump can with the help of Russian Military Intelligence win an election in the US in 2016 and still claim he won in 2020, an abject lie which white supremacists and QAnon racists, misogynists and xenophobes affirm.
Applause to everyone in this film and particularly the director and her team who culled the massive number of film clips, cataloguing and editing them with the commentary. If is a magnificent historical work that should be used in Film History classes and African American History of the 20-21st Century as well as Gender Studies. Its intersectionality is key and as historical and political research it provides a first-of-a-kind look at these amazing ground-breaking women leaders who quietly with their deepest hearts changed our lives and perceptions.