Marian Anderson’s beautiful and powerful voice is still echoing in current events.
Although the great South Philadelphia opera singer and civil rights icon passed away more than 25 years ago, Anderson is still in the spotlight, most recently as the subject of a new documentary that will air on PBS/WHYY on Feb. 15.
American Experience’s Voice of Freedom, produced by Rob Rapley and executive produced by Cameo George, will highlight Anderson’s life and struggles as a black musician before becoming one of the most powerful voices in the world, performing in front of an enormous crowd at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939.
The 100-minute documentary was a labor of love for Rapley, a Brooklyn resident and well-known television producer who has been nominated for multiple Emmys.
“People might recognize the iconic images of Marian Anderson from the Lincoln Memorial concert but she was so much more than that,” Rapley said in a phone interview. “I really hope that people take a second look at her and illuminate the decisions that artists have to make in bringing about social change. She was such an incredibly courageous woman and a brilliant artist so I hope that this does bring a little more attention to her.”
Rapley, who worked in the classical music industry before taking on films, said he studied other black artists like opera singer Kathleen Battle, which then led him to Anderson. The idea for the documentary was born a few years ago, and production began at the beginning of 2020.
“We sketched it out a few years ago and production began last January,” Rapley said. “Most of it took place during the pandemic, which imposed all sorts of challenges, but we managed.”
It involved hiring local camera crews that visited the former Union Baptist Church on 12th Street, where Anderson’s family was very active and where Anderson started singing choir. The film focuses on Anderson’s involvement in the civil rights movement after she was rejected from the Philadelphia Musical Academy as a teenager and was denied the opportunity by the Daughters of the Revolution to perform in front of an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington during a time of racial segregation.
“The most interesting part of the story is her relationship to the civil rights movement,” Rapley said. “It was a movement that I was aware of but like most people you think of the civil rights movement as starting in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. but, of course, it was always going on and the arc of that story follows Anderson’s life.”
Anderson caught the attention of then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped clear the way for Anderson to perform an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 70,000 people and be heard by millions more through a radio transmission.
“Marian Anderson was an artist first and foremost. She did not seek to become an icon of the civil rights movement,” said George, the executive producer. “But when circumstances thrust themselves upon her, she did not waver, using her voice as a powerful force to transcend geographical, political and racial boundaries.”
The documentary includes stories and archives from the Marian Anderson Museum, which is located at 762 Martin St. in South Philadelphia and it interviews museum director Jillian Pirtle. The documentary can be seen on PBS and WHYY on Feb. 15 from 9-11 p.m.; on PBS.org or on the PBS Video App.
The documentary highlights the station’s effort to honor Black History Month. Rapley said the film relates to current events and Anderson’s voice should still be heard.
“It’s not just Black History Month, it’s also more topical as people have been re-examining America’s racial politics over the last year especially,” Rapley said. “It is always topical but now more than ever. I don’t think we can get past this moment until white Americans, in particular, look at their history in the face and we have to know where all this comes from. It’s not just slavery and it didn’t stop with emancipation. I feel very fortunate to have been able to make this film. It’s one of the most engaging stories in American history.”