How It Feels To Be Free celebrates Black women who fought racism in Hollywood

Alicia Keys, Samuel L. Jackson, and others remember the stereotypes Lena Horne refused to play

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      In How It Feels To Be Free, Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, and Brown Girl Begins director Sharon Lewis pay tribute to the Black women entertainers and activists who made way for them.

      Yoruba Richen’s documentary, produced by Canada’s YAP Films and executive produced by Alicia Keys, is a kaleidoscopic profile of icons Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, and Cicely Tyson.

      The film adapts Ruth Feldstein’s novel How It Feels To Be Free: Black Women Entertainers And The Civil Rights Movement, narrating the unique struggle each woman faced when stepping on stage, on screen or into the political arena. They were fighting overt or systemic racism on all fronts.

      Richen’s film, which premiered this month on PBS in the U.S. and the documentary Channel in Canada, features old and new interviews with Horne, Carroll, Grier, and a with a wide swath of Black women working in or alongside the entertainment industry today including Lena Waithe, Berry, and Keys.

      In the clip below, Keys, Samuel L. Jackson, Canadian filmmaker Sharon Lewis, Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart, and NOW culture editor Radheyan Simonpillai revisit the racist stereotypes Hollywood peddled at its infancy and how they were received as Lena Horne became the first Black performer signed to a long-term studio contract.

      The documentary covers Horne’s monumental impact as the first Black pin-up star whose marginal appearances in musicals were eclipsed by the powerful stance she took refusing stereotypical maid roles. She later took on a larger activist role alongside fellow Black stars like Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte. Halle Berry named Horne, alongside Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll, in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, when she became the first and only Black woman to win the Oscar for best actress.

      How It Feels To Be Free begins streaming on CBC Gem on February 1.