How It Feels to Be Free

TV review by
Marina Gordon, Common Sense Media
How It Feels to Be Free TV Poster Image
Clear-eyed docu celebrates talented women facing racism.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

The documentary explores the influence that one person can exert over entrenched inequalities, as well as the reality that change is often incremental. The film, music, and TV industries are shown to be complicit in maintaining the status quo of racial stereotypes, often while claiming to change with the times.

Positive Role Models

All of the women profiled in the documentary are dedicated to both their craft and their activism.


The murders of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. are mentioned as touchstones, and we see unsettling images from the 1960s (e.g., of white people yelling at Black students). The section on Pam Grier's movies has fight scenes and a man on the losing end of a plane propeller.


There's just some kissing and sexualized imagery from the '70s Blaxploitation movies and posters.


There's no swearing of note in the documentary, but as it covers the period from the 1930s to the present, we see the evolving language around the identity of Black Americans.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lots of cigarette smoking because many clips are from the 1930s through the '70s. Drinking is also depicted and referenced.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How It Feels To Be Free is a documentary that briefly explores how six Black women -- Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Abbey Lincoln, and Diahann Carroll -- combined their artistic endevours with activism and inspired future generations. The most controversial word spoken is "goddam" (which was censored in 1964 when Simone released "Mississippi Goddam"), and outdated terms for Black people are used regularly throughout the series. There are some violent scenes from the 1960s civil rights movement and somewhat cartoonish violence in Pam Grier's movies.

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What's the story?

HOW IT FEELS TO BE FREE spotlights six groundbreaking Black performers -- Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Pam Grier -- and explores the risks they took to force changes in how they and their artistic heirs would be perceived. In addition to archival clips with all the perfomers and recent interviews with Grier, contemporary artists Alicia Keys (who executive produced the documentary), Lena Waithe (named for Horne), Halle Berry, and Samuel L. Jackson address how the women's influence helped make their careers possible. How It Feels To Be Free, an episode of PBS's American Masters, is based on the book by Ruth Feldstein, who comments here along with other writers and cultural observers.

Is it any good?

Each of the women profiled here is worthy of a full-length documentary, but seeing them together gives viewers a primer on their impact on both entertainment and the social movements of their times. Viewers familiar with the careers of the six performers in How It Feels To Be Free will likely see them anew in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Others who may not know the women's stories will marvel at their determination, talent, and influence. 

Some viewers may be tempted to say "so much has changed," and in ways much has. Lena Horne, for example, was among the earliest Black actors signed to a long-term studio contract, but after only two speaking parts and expectations that she "pass" as Latina in the 1940s, MGM relegated Horne to singing roles that could be edited out for Southern markets that refused to show a movie with a Black actor who wasn't playing a servant. Yet 80 years later there's been just one Black Best Actress Oscar winner (Halle Berry, who talks in the documentary about the debt she owes to the women covered here). It's particularly poignant to review Cicely Tyson's lengthy career; she died at 96 just days after How It Feels To Be Free was released, and she worked right up to the end.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about documentaries. How does How It Feels To Be Free tell the story of these six women's lives and careers? Who would you want to know more about? Who else could have been included?

  • Who are some other examples of musicians, writers, filmmakers, and actors who also used their art to confront and address political and human rights issues?

  • Often, when celebrities, musicians, and athletes speak out against injustice or an issue of concern that falls beyond what they do for a living, some people tell them to "shut up and stick to [your job]." What are your thoughts on this? Should those in the spotlight speak out, protest, and express their convictions, or is their role to simply provide entertainment and a temporary escape for their fans?

TV details

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For kids who love Black stories

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