PBS’ Marian Anderson Documentary Highlights the Racial Fortitude of the Legendary Opera Singer

Marian Anderson
Image: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images.

In honor of Black History Month and Marian Anderson’s 125th birthday, which is February 27, 1897, PBS series American Masters will be debuting a special about the life and times of the esteemed opera singer, who dismantled racial barriers and inspired the world through song. Directed by Emmy and Peabody Award winner Rita Coburn, American Masters—Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands dynamically explores the career, art and legacy of the contralto and civil rights pioneer through archival interview recordings. Internationally renown for her vocal prowess, she became the first African American to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. The documentary is hoping to introduce Anderson’s talent to newer generations as well as provide a deeper understanding of the woman behind the music.

Affectionately known to audiences as “The Lady from Philadelphia” and “The People’s Princess,” Anderson’s career was not only successful due to her immense talent, but it was also constructed by the limits imposed by America in the Jim Crow era. Out of the extreme racism and segregation she experienced, came vocal fortitude. She was committed to reflecting the truth about the times she lived in. Her strength was rooted in family and community as she overcame humiliation, prejudice and financial hardship to become a voice for justice.

“Marian Anderson’s legacy creates a bridge as our society continues to sound the call for justice, recognition, reconciliation and the confrontation of racism in order to create lasting change,” said Coburn. “Her ability to create, cull and navigate a worldview, having been born in 1897 and facing down Jim Crow, gives us both hope and yet begs the question: how long will America divide itself along racial lines?”

The documentary also features new interviews with fellow Black opera singers, including mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and tenor George Shirley, who also served on the film’s team of humanities advisers. Additional interviews include Anderson’s friends, contemporaries and those she influenced, including J’nai Bridges, Angela Brown, Martina Arroyo, Sandra Grymes (Anderson’s niece) and Jillian Pirtle.

American Masters—Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands premieres nationwide Tuesday, February 8 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. 

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