New documentary How It Feels to Be Free highlights Black women in jazz

A new documentary film tells the story of how Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Lena Horne and other trailblazing performers changed popular culture with their music, films, fashion and politics.

The film features Simone, the revolutionary musical prodigy; Lincoln, the singer turned civil rights activist; Horne, the first Black woman signed to a major studio; Diahann Carroll, the first Black woman to win a Tony Award and star in her own TV series; Pam Grier, the first female action hero; and Cicely Tyson, an actress and former fashion model who uses her art as a form of protest.

Directed by Yoruba Richen and executive produced by Alicia Keys, How It Feels to Be Free “explores how these women re-shaped the way Black women were represented on stage and screen and how Black female entertainers who came after them built off their success, learned from their failures, and continue working to change the industry.” The film situates their activism as precursors to contemporary movements like #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter.

Watch the trailer below.

The documentary features archival performances and interviews with the women, plus interviews with leading entertainers including Lena Waithe, Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson, and family members such as Horne’s daughter Gail Lumet Buckley.

It also features a musical score by Canadian composers Mark McLean and Keith Power.

“I’m a fan of Nina Simone. I’m a fan of Abbey Lincoln. I’m a fan of Diahann Carroll. The story is so powerful. We really wanted to do a great job. Just watching it and coming up with ideas, that really inspired us,” McLean said in an interview with JAZZ.FM91’s Heather Bambrick.

“I thought I knew a lot, but I learned so much more by being part of this project,” he added. “They were so politically and socially aware of what was happening, and they tried to change things. They had a voice. There were a lot of challenges, and they really did change our culture. When you hear the word ‘trailblazer’ — I have a whole new respect for that word now. They’re [the reason] why I’m able to do this.”

The film is based on the book How it Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement by Ruth Feldstein.

“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 who continue to push boundaries and reshape how African-American women are seen on-screen,” says Richen.

“I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project,” says Keys. “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 honour their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.”

The film premiered in Canada on Sunday, Jan. 17, on the Documentary Channel.

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