Emmy nominee Mehret Mandefro (‘American Masters’ producer) on ‘How it Feels to Be Free’ for legendary Black women [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“All of us know a great deal about their music and the culture and the fashion and the films. But I didn’t realize how really groundbreaking they were in terms of their careers,” explains Dr. Mehret Mandefro, who is Emmy-nominated for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series for the “American Masters” documentary “How it Feels to Be Free”; she produced it along with Michael Kantor, Lacey Schwartz Delgado, Elliott Halpern, Elizabeth Trojian, Julie Sacks and Grammy winner Alicia Keys. Based on the book of the same name by Ruth Feldstein, the film chronicles the art and activism of Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson. Watch our exclusive video interview with Mandefro above.

The six artists profiled in the film represent the progress made by Black women in media throughout the 20th century. But breaking new ground required them to confront head-on the structural and political barriers that Black women faced in the business and in society at large. They became stars “long before any of the same issues we’ve been talking about. So in many ways we looked at this film as almost like the prehistory, if you will, to what’s going on now around representation and gender in the entertainment industry.”

And though “it’s still harder for us to get money for our stories,” Mandefro sees among current Black creators “a small but mighty tribe of people that are really building the road and walking on it at the same time. But I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do the work and keep trying to figure out how this moment gets translated into real change that lasts.” She herself has been doing that work; in addition to producing films like “How it Feels to Be Free,” she founded the American production company Truth Aid Media and the Ethiopian company A51 Pictures, opening doors that were closed to many people who came before. “Whenever I get tired, I really think about the young kids coming up and it makes me feel very optimistic about the future.”

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