As a history nerd I’m all for the underappreciated heroes of the past, but I simply had no idea about Marian Anderson. Yes, I knew she was one of America’s best-known singers in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at their venue, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, because she was Black. And that Eleanor Roosevelt quit the D.A.R. and that Anderson’s concert was moved to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But a powerful new PBS film on her life tells the whole story and packs an emotional wallop I did not see coming.
Even in a news cycle dominated by Hitler, Marian Anderson’s story loomed large. She was the highest-paid singer in America and her decision to take a stand as a Black woman gained worldwide interest. Her historic concert was broadcast to the nation by radio. Thing was, Anderson never saw herself as anything other than a diva. In 1951, when the NAACP demanded she join a boycott of segregated concert halls, Anderson declined, not wanting to alienate her hosts - whereupon Black people started boycotting her.
This uneasy relationship to civil rights activism probably explains why we haven't heard her remarkable story before now. But the bevy of Black biopics suggests a newfound urgency for understanding our past. George Floyd wasn’t the first victim of systemic racism, but after he died suddenly millions wanted to know what systemic racism was. His martyrdom forced a complacent nation to look at individual lives and actions through the wider scope of history, especially the history of violence in America.
And this, quite unexpectedly, has given relevance and emotional power to Voice of Freedom, Rob Rapley’s superb new documentary about Marian Anderson. Debuting tonight on PBS’s American Experience, the film calls out and amplifies the imposing cultural barriers that Anderson scaled as she built her career as a classically trained Black contralto in a country unprepared to acknowledge the existence of such a person.
Rapley, an experienced storyteller, shows how at every turn Anderson faced odds that would break a less determined person, odds made considerably longer by systemic racism. Raised in Philadelphia by a single mother and her church, Anderson possessed an astounding range that she believed was her ticket to the city’s premier musical academy and a performing career. But Philly had already chased one world-class Black artist off to Europe, the painter Henry Ossawa Turner in 1891, and would do the same to Anderson.
Time and again the film’s talking heads — including scholars Alisha Lola Jones and Kira Thurman, singer Angela Brown, and historians Lucy Caplan and Adriane Lentz-Smith — helped me understand, and even feel, what it musr have been like to be an invisible Black woman demanding to seen and heard. But it was the words of Anderson herself, taken from her memoir and spoken by Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton), that really cut me to the quick. Learning that her dream school would not take her because of her skin color, she recalled, “All of my dreams were just shattered around my head," an unforgettable and heartbreaking image.
Taking a private instructor, Anderson soldiered on, only to have her debut recital in Chicago delayed by one of the deadliest race riots in the U.S. history. As the film explains, it was part of the 1919 "red summer” of white violence against African-Americans, presaging the apocalyptic Tulsa massacre of 1921. Rapley follows this with the dedication of, yes, the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, an act of intellectual violence in which the Civil War is reframed as nothing more than a tragic split between white people. Exactly one person of color was allowed to speak at the dedication, but not before a white censor had redacted any mention of Lincoln freeing the slaves from his speech.
Marian Anderson was reserved and professional all of her life, but the film makes clear that she was as keen a race observer as anyone. A disastrous 1925 New York recital convinces her to sail for France to get the musical education she’d been denied in the U.S. Later, she becomes the hottest ticket on the continent. “In Scandinavia,” she recalled, “I had the feeling that I was very free and absolutely at home.” But she is not at home, and 10 years later she makes a triumphal return to New York. She is acclaimed, wealthy, and still a second-class citizen in her native land.
So that's an hour of power storytelling. Only then is Rapley ready to take us to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, following a media frenzy stirred up by the NAACP’s Walter White, who sees, even if Anderson does not, that her presence at the shrine of the Great Emancipator is a challenge to the intellectual whitewash of that time. The film builds up to this moment so skillfully that, even though I knew exactly what Anderson was going to sing as her opening number, it still brought tears to my eyes.
To be fair, Anderson wasn’t a civil-rights-era slouch. She agreed to break the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, opening the door for Leontyne Price and so many others. And she returned to the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 as a guest of honor, singing the National Anthem to kick off the day’s events at the March on Washington. After her performance, Anderson stepped aside for the new wave of civil rights voices. They included the popular gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who belted out a stirring rendition of “How I Got Over” that day. Legend has it that Jackson, who was Anderson’s temperamental opposite (and is getting her own biopic treatment this year), shouted at Martin Luther King midway through his prepared remarks, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”
A presentation of American Experience, “Voice of Freedom” airs on most PBS stations Monday February 15th at 9:00 PM. It is also available on-demand at PBS Passport.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.