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.
End of The Line: Women of Standing Rock directed and produced by Shannon Kring, is an epic, historic film. Using cinema verite, on the ground style cinematography, Kring follows protest activities of the largest gathering of Indigenous Peoples in the US as they take a stand against the exploitation of their lands given to them in an agreed upon treaty of 1851 by representatives of the U.S. government. This is a film about the women of the Nakota, Dakota and Lakota tribes, who with their men and families, gathered together to stop the destruction of the Missouri River by an oil company, Energy Transfer Partners responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
She focuses principally on grassroot activities of water protectors Wasté Win Young, Phyllis Young, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, Pearl Daniel-Means, Linda Black Elk, Ph.D. and Madonna Thunder Hawk. As the movement grows and they gain the moxie as empowered women to forge ahead and take this fight to the world, we revel in the courage, stamina and bravery to fight the good fight until they reach the goal.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is the 1,172-mile-long (1,886 km) underground oil pipeline in the United States. It begins in the shale oil fields of the Bakken formation in northwest North Dakota and continues through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois. Together with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline from Patoka to Nederland, Texas, it forms the Bakken system. Extraction of the oil depends on fracking, an extremely dangerous procedure to the environment. The entire fossil fuel process condemns the area land and water and increases global warming aka Climate Change aka known as extreme weather actions.
Announced to the public in June 2014, the almost $4 billion dollar project took off after informational hearings for landowners ending in 2015 that did not include Native Americans who had rights to the land. Dakota Access, LLC, controlled by Energy Transfer Partners, started constructing the pipeline in June 2016. Other companies have minority interests in the pipeline. The pipeline, completed by April 2017 became commercially operational on June 1, 2017 under the Trump administration.
Kring focuses the documentary on the women of the Indigenous peoples between the time that the pipeline bulldozers showed up on Standing Rock Reservation until the time that protestors and activists were evicted and the camp pulled down. Also Kring covers the aftermath reflecting on the camp’s power to bring unity and the actions that the Indigenous Americans have undertaken afterward. She examines the strength, resilience, inner power and intelligence of Native American women who have their s*%t together to finally say “enough is enough.” Willing to die for the great purpose to keep the water in the Missouri River clean and unpolluted as it feeds into the water supply of 18 million Americans, the film shadows and highlights water protectors as they maintain their goals in the light of hypocrisy of the Army Corp of Engineers under the Obama Administration. The film also explores the actions of the women beyond the Trump administration.
When the standoff is concluded and arrests are made, the coalition of men and women, but led by women decide to go to the UN and European conferences to announce they elicit support in their financial tactics to overwhelm the tyranny of Donald Trump’s quid pro quos with the Dakota Access Pipeline Company. Interestingly, their interests align with climate change activists against fossil fuel development. And thus far in their “Divestment Movement,” they have 1000 divestment commitments made by companies to for a total of over $11.4 trillion worldwide to relinquish use and exploitation of fossil fuels in a forward thrust toward massive projects in renewable energy
Kring interviews key water protectors. She follows their protest movements at Standing Rock Reservation Camp as they peacefully and without weapons pray and protest to stop the exploitation of their land and advertise the dangers of the pipeline to their water supply which relies on the cleanliness of the Missouri River. During the process, the Obama Administration’s Army Corp of Engineers is supposed to complete an impact statement. As the water protectors wait on them, the Dakota Access Pipeline moves in. No agreements were made between the Indigenous tribes in the area. And the PR company for the pipeline accuses the tribes of being out-of-state and not directly impacted by the pipeline. Those lies are smashed as the stand-in continues and Democracy Now takes photographs and videos of the abuse of the Native Americans at the hands of the goons hired by the pipeline to run roughshod and with impunity over the land to lay the pipe.
The photographs go viral. And the Nakota, Lakota and Dakota are joined by Viet Nam Vets,Vets of recent wars and environmental activists to fight for the sanctity of water from the Missouri to remain clean from oils leaching into it. All told 15,000 people from around the world protested, staging a sit-in for months. And when they couldn’t resist at their camp on the site of the pipeline and were evicted and arrested in the final days, they took their fight to protests in Washington D.C., and spoke before the U.N. and in global conferences.
Interview clips from a scientist reveals that the pipeline is dragged underground through the land to get to its destination. This movement creates breaches which are inevitable with the dragging and placement. Sadly, they are subject to weathering cracks and spring leaks which are practically undetectable until there is a massive accident. Pipelines are notorious for these and over the years in residential areas have created oil pools on lawns creating losses in the millions of housing and costing a fortune to clean-up.
Kring provides the appropriate background was she asks the right questions from the women who know the subject of the pipeline and its impact blindfolded. When Dakota Access Pipeline was denied access to lands near Bismarck, North Dakota because the possibility of the wealthy commuynity’s water might be polluted and destroyed by pipeline leaks, The Pipeline company petitioned to situate the pipe in a better area where there weren’t any people.
What they refused to research and what the Army Corp of Engineers didn’t look into was the impact on the environment. The pipeline construction and the potential for an oil disaster afterward is typical of any fossil fuel extraction abuse of the land. First, the extraction of the oil from the shale is a disaster of pollution. Secondly, with any oil leaks from the pipeline, the flora and fauna is crippled and destroyed. One of the water protectors discusses that medicinal plants and edible plants that provide forage for wildlife will be polluted and destroyed.
She cites other examples when Native American land was invaded and the flora and fauna was decimated. The near extinction of the Buffalo as a plains animal is one of thousands of examples of what happened when settlers came in and exploited everything they found like dumb brutes not bothering to understand what their impact was having. Furthermore she emphasizes that the pipeline itself is potentially in violation of a number of national acts: Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act to name a few. Equally important, the Pipeline Company was desecrating Native American land: Lakota, Nakota, Dakota. Indeed, running through ancestral lands and graveyards, the pipeline was a desecration.
Kring’s documentary reveals that these women understand their history and how it entwines with the scourge of colonialism. References to the abuses of schooling Native Americans in Christian schools, sterilization programs, sexual abuse by male clerics and forcing adoptions of children out of wedlock were endemic to Indigenous Peoples in America. Thus, every protest and every fight is an attempt to take their power back.
The women indicate that they’ve learned the power of keeping their language and customs alive for their children to provide them a nest of comfort, solidarity and the understanding to be proud of their ancestry of Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face and Crazy Horse. Importantly, they recognize the deficiency of colonials, who have forgotten who they are and the culture they came from. Thus, wanting and desperate, colonials have no right to strip Native Americans from their culture, language, land and artifacts. These are sacred treasures of Native Americans. Only now do the women understand the pride of their tribe and their cultural place at the beginning of America.
This is a film you’ll want to see. It is streaming at Athena Film Festival until 31st of March. Click here for tickets. Click below to get a taste of what you might miss if you don’t see it. https://athenafilmfestival.com/
The 8th, a superb documentary, now screening at the Athena Film Festival, catalogues up close the last year of the Irish Republic’s Women’s Movement working to repeal The 8th amendment to their constitution. It is a superb historical capsule of how women activists and women’s right’s leaders in the Irish Republic diligently fought for and won against the Catholic Church, religious groups and politicians who attempted to hold on to the amendment that they passed in 1983.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 was an amendment to the Constitution of Ireland which inserted a subsection recognizing the equal right to life of the pregnant woman and the unborn. As a result the 8th banned abortions, the abortion pill and forms of contraception. It abrogated a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. It did not give her access to reproductive healthcare if it involved terminating a pregnancy. Unborn fetuses had the same right to life as women, though there is Biblical scripture that is against this.***
Directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle with interviews and cinema verite style on the ground, in the moment cinematography we understand so much about the repeal the 8th movement. We are there with the marches and moments of doubt, concern and angst. And we understand the great good will and joie de vivre of women and men in 2017-2018 who dug deep to do their part to overturn one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the world. The film identifies how the uplifting struggle unified the Irish Republic like no other cause before it. Eschewing former tactics that remained unproductive, and employing the ideas of care and compassion, activists sifted through 35 years of onerous, oppressive experiences mothers faced under the 8th and spotlighted them to the populace.
One of the essential fallacies that the Catholic Church, politicians and women’s groups who supported them used to terrorize the populace in the past using Christianity’s 10 commandments to cover for the raw power and control of politicians and the Church, was the unborn fetus. An unborn fetus under twelve weeks cannot be sustained outside the women’s body. So it was exploited and used as a weapon for political and religious power. Those who supported the 8th proclaimed that a fetus was a whole human being with the same rights as the adult woman who carried it. The fetuses were lifted up as equal to women, an abject lie that is not Biblical.
The law in effect asserted that if a woman could get pregnant at child- bearing ages they had no rights above those of a fetus. In other words, they were equivalent. There were a few exceptions, for example the risk of the life of the mother and child. But if the child’s heart beat was found, there could be no abortion, even if the mother was dying, or the child contributed to the mother dying. A woman having the same rights as fetuses, means there is no choice. Woman and fetus are one and the same. The law removed a woman’s right to think for herself and reduced her to silence under the Republic of Ireland.
The concept is preposterous and defies reality which indicates it is a power grab and uses the irrational and emotional to remove any logical debate. The vote which allowed the Church, government and hooked in women’s groups to reduce women to the unborn, was passed by 66% of the population in 1983. Paternalism and the oppression of women had reached an all time high under this law, making fetuses and women subjects of the state, a blasphemy to God and Christianity in removing women’s freedoms and in effect self-determination of their souls.
Ironically, the Church was under its own siege as babies bodies were unearthed in the septic tanks of a mother/child home and the abuses of the Madeline Laundries were shown on film. Then the massive pederasty and abuse sandal of clerics abuses boys for decades pointed up the hypocrisy of the Church. Who were they to legislate for women when they themselves were abusive, hyper-wicked and dangerous to their own parishioners?
That they were guilty of abusing women with this law as they had been abusing men and women for decades helped to change the populace’s opinions about the Church. This cruel and unusual punishment of not giving women access to reproductive healthcare was petitioned against countless times by women activists. Even the UN in recent years declared women not being given the right to healthcare and a legal abortion was egregious discrimination against women and a human rights violation.
Filmmakers highlight the negative impact of the harsh laws of the 8th with clips of marches and activism. Thousands of women ended up going to the UK for their healthcare and abortions yearly. In one instance of rape a 14-year-old was prevented from going to the UK. She was suicidal. The rape was familial and she threatened to kill herself. Finally, the High Court allowed it. But by the time she arrived, she was under such duress she had a miscarriage. Women’s groups were outraged and petitioned for changes but the main law held.
In another case, a pregnant Indian mother Savita Halappanavar who was ill with sepsis asked for an abortion. But because there was a heart beat, she died of sepsis. The doctor was afraid of an jail sentence, so rather than to act and give her the abortion she asked for, he waited and she died. Filmmakers highlight the marches around Savita’s death and the injustices in such cases.
But the most vital parts of the film follow specific activists, self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan. She and others worked hard to get out the vote going door to door. Horan had a sign painted on the wall of her shop. Filmmakers have clips of her talking to women about the issues like allowing abortions of fetuses with severe debilities as they die of these issues in the womb.
Importantly, filmmakers also highlight and shadow the wonderfully vibrant and energetic academic Ailbhe Smyth who has been at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement during each feminist wave starting in the 1970s. She is the equivalent of the U.S. Gloria Steinem having worked tirelessly for women and Women’s Rights in the Irish Republic. She founded and spearheaded so many groups it makes one’s head spin. This, including establishing a Women’s Studies program in U.C.D. (University College Dublin)
In the last months working to repeal the 8th, Ailbhe Smyth is the key leader that others look to. Filmmakers reveal her sense of humor, her inner strength, her openness and authenticity, her driving hard work to win the votes. One can’t help but fall in love with her. She with the help of collaborators who felt that this campaign to repeat the 8th most importantly was a campaign of compassion and concern for women’s reproductive healthcare. To stop the thousands yearly going to the U.K. for abortions, if the law was repealed, they would have access in their own country. Interestingly, that the Republic of Ireland allowed itself to be shamed and judged by the U.K., really is beyond the pale.
Filmmakers also interview those who vote for keeping the 8th. The arguments against the repeal are thin. And in the case of one journalist, she hangs her “no” vote on the example of her friend getting an abortion and regretting it. Of course, the instances where women are driven to extreme action to travel spending time, money and effort because the government doesn’t think they deserve the right to choose another path are ignored and overlooked. The religious argument and pictures of fetuses are used; filmmakers didn’t gratuitously include these. However, in the hearts of some, the life of the unborn is even more worthy to fight for than an adult woman with a formed mind and soul that clerics deem wicked.
As the countdown to the day of the vote arrives after the debates, filmmakers do a superb job of transferring the excitement and jubilation. Indeed, it is palpable. Ailbhe Smyth and others are joyously expectant and the moment of historic change is real. There is no going back, ever. The Republic of Ireland entered the 21st century and this was like the shot heard round the world. The Republican Party of the U.S. is on notice, despite its conservative court.
The law was signed by the President of Ireland on 20 December 2018, after being approved by both Houses of the Oirechtas, legalizing abortion in Ireland. Abortion services began 1 January 2019.
In a quote that says it all an activist said, “We will end what has been described as an English solution to an Irish problem’. Our women will no longer need to travel abroad to access abortions, and we will no longer need to import abortion pills illegally and without access to medical care or support.
Look for The 8th online or screening at the Athena Film Festival. It is a jubilation and must-see.