It’s been 20 years since Alicia Keys released her debut album, the one that made her a star, Songs in A Minor. Since then, his presence on the music charts has been gradually fading until almost disappearing. His latest release, Alicia (2020), has shipped a few thousand copies, far from the 12 million it reached with its first album. But, somehow, the singer has remained relevant to public opinion. Since she decided to stop wearing makeup in almost all her appearances in 2016, she has become the bare face of the #nomakeup movement. Now, as a producer of the documentary What it’s like to feel free, which broadcasts the Odyssey channel divided into two parts, invests his fortune and his influence in vindicating those who paved the way for him. Both deliveries can already be seen on demand on services such as Vodafone TV, Orange TV and Movistar +.
Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Pam Grier. They are six black women dedicated to show business who broke double-glazed ceilings decades ago. They also inspired that girl from Harlem who, thanks to them, managed to imagine that she could be a music star.
Commissioned by a public television such as the American PBS, this documentary follows the classic rules of the genre on television, closer to the informative than to the creative. But he manages to catch on with the exciting experiences of his protagonists, which he intertwines with great narrative skill. The exhaustive review of the careers of each of these six women, completed with the testimonies of Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Lena Waithe (Master of None) and Keys herself, gives a good account of the effort with which those goals were achieved. As in the case of the singer, it was not so much about being number one as it was about being seen.
Lincoln used Marilyn Monroe dresses in the 1950s to make her a sex bomb in the movies and on stage, but once that achievement was unlocked, he preferred to dedicate himself to activism and protest song. Horne, on the other hand, had been able to go one step further to change the industry from within. In his contract with a large film company, the first signed with a black woman, he added a clause: he did not intend to play maids. In response, she was relegated to performing large musical numbers on paper with hardly any phrase. Carroll, his successor on screen and on stage, did play leading roles, they were so much so that they seemed to lead the life of a white woman, part of the African-American community of the time lamented. And Cicely Tyson broke the trend for light-skinned black women on screen.
All those small steps, with their buts, were important and necessary for those who a television series, a concert or a movie was not just a television series, a concert or a movie. This production he knows how to represent them for what they were: political acts closely linked to civil rights movements. With this review, conveniently connected to historical facts, the documentary also reminds us that the issue of racial representation has not been resolved for too many decades. The recent controversies with HBO’s Ana Bolena negra and with the refusal of the Latin actress Ada Maris to play a housekeeper full of clichés in the new series Uncoupled, Netflix prove it.
Despite its austere ways, What it’s like to feel free it’s quite a show.
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