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PBS Sets New Documentary on Pioneering African-American Opera Singer Marian Anderson — Exclusive

The film will chart how the pioneer overcame racial prejudice to become an internationally renowned star and voice for social justice.

Marian Anderson Singer Marian Anderson smiles at the Pierre Hotel, New York City, where the Ladies' Home Journal's "Women of the Decade Awards: were heldMarian Anderson, New York, USA

Marian Anderson

Ron Frehm/AP/Shutterstock

THIRTEEN’s American Masters series and Philip Gittelman Productions, in association with Black Public Media, will develop a new documentary on opera singer Marian Anderson for PBS, sources exclusively tell IndieWire.

Affectionately known to audiences as “The Lady from Philadelphia” and “The People’s Princess,” the contralto, who died in 1993, is credited with breaking down barriers for African Americans in the arts, and galvanizing a fledgling civil rights movement with a 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in a brave protest against racial intolerance.

In 1936, Anderson became the first black artist to perform at the White House, and, in 1955, the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.

Balancing her public triumph with her personal struggles and resilience, the documentary will trace Anderson’s impact as a talent whose career was steered by the limits imposed by racism and segregation. Despite racial prejudice, she became an internationally renowned star and a voice for social justice.

A recipient of a production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film will explore her life, career, art and legacy, and also celebrate key performances of her career, showing how her spectacular voice set the stage for black performers in classical music who would come later. It will feature new interviews with Anderson’s friends, contemporaries and those she influenced, including fellow black opera singers, Denyce Graves and George Shirley, who also serves on the film’s team of humanities advisers.

To be directed by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winner Rita Coburn under the tentative title “American Masters – Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands,” the documentary promises unprecedented access to the Marian Anderson Estate, drawing on rare archival footage and audio recordings, as well as extensive personal correspondence with family and friends, including luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Shirley Chisholm and Langston Hughes.

Additional advisers include Naomi André, Associate Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s Studies, at the University of Michigan; Raymond Arsenault, author of “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America”; Christopher A. Brooks, Professor of Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia; Lucy Caplan, lecturer of History and Literature at Harvard University; and Allan Keiler, author “Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey.”

“When producing films about people who experienced racism and the Civil Rights movement, having a filmmaker who understands the lens of the subject is a crucial part of telling the story successfully,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters. “Rita co-directed our award-winning documentary ‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,’ and we’re thrilled to have her at the helm of this project.”

“As an African-American female director, I am honored to continue Marian Anderson’s legacy at a time when our culture needs to hear the tonality of resilience, power, beauty, voice and courage,” said Coburn. “When American Masters approached me with this opportunity, their support in curating a team of strength and talent from the black community was important to create a work that is empowered, inclusive and entrenched in the rigors of authentic storytelling. I look forward to working closely with director of photography Henry Adebonojo, composer Kathryn Bostic, and executive producer Brenda Robinson.”

“American Masters – Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands” is a co-production of American Masters Pictures and Philip Gittelman Productions, and produced in association with Artemis Rising Foundation.

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