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Breaking barriers: ‘How It Feels To Be Free’ follows struggles of six Black female entertainers

Blazing a trail takes a great amount of work.

Try being a Black woman in the entertainment industry.

“It’s been a difficult journey for Black women in entertainment,” filmmaker Yoruba Richen says.

Richen immediately knew she wanted to make a film based on Ruth Feldstein’s 2014 book “How It Feels To Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement.”

After five years of intense work, Richen has finished “How It Feels To Be Free,” which will air at 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 18, on New Mexico PBS.

“These types of documentaries can take a long time, and that was the case with this one,” Richen says. “Often, the case, it comes down to funding and that’s what we kept running into.”

“How It Feels To Be Free” tells the story of how six iconic Black female entertainers – Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier – challenged an entertainment industry deeply complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, and transformed themselves and their audiences in the process.

The film features interviews and archival performances with all six women, as well as original conversations with artists influenced by them, including Alicia Keys, an executive producer on the project, Halle Berry, Lena Waithe, Meagan Good, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson and other luminaries, as well as family members, including Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley.

Richen says the women broke through in an entertainment industry hellbent on keeping them out and situates their activism as precursors to movements including #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter.

Executive producer Alicia Keys. (Courtesy of Milan Zirnic)

“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 – like Keys, Halle Berry, Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe – who continue to push boundaries and reshape how African American women are seen on screen,” Richen says.

The film is part of PBS’ “American Masters” series.

“These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of the “American Masters” series. “We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.”

Keys said she signed on to the project because it’s important.

“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 honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started,” Keys says in a statement.

Richen was drawn to the stories of each woman and how they wasn’t written as biographies.

“The book and the film really look at the impact that these women had in their time period and field,” Richen says. “The strides that have been taken need to continue to move forward. We are seeing Black storytelling in ways that we’ve never seen before. Black women are telling their own stories, and that is what we need.”

Richen was also finishing the documentary when the pandemic hit.

She quickly pivoted to conducting interviews over Zoom.

“The shift also allowed us to have a different type of access to people,” she says. “It was a challenge.”

The editing process was challenging, because her editor is based in Canada.

“We had a very strict deadline,” she says. “The production company had to work to get me into Canada. I worked with a lawyer and quarantined for two weeks. I couldn’t leave the property, but I was able to work with my editor for a week.”

As the broadcast date approaches, Richen is excited to tell the story through film.

“I hope as the audience is reintroduced to these women that they may or may not have known their full legacy,” she says. “This is the long fight for racial justice in the country. This is told through the entertainment lens of film. These women were in it for the long haul. We have to continue to keep fighting.”

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