American Masters

How It Feels to Be Free profiled musician Nina Simone (above), alongside Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier. Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo
In it’s 34th season, American Masters brought viewers diverse stories of those who provoked, inspired and changed the narrative of American history.

Timed with the women’s suffrage centennial, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers focused on the risks pioneering women took that shaped today’s political landscape; it was the most-streamed American Masters documentary to date (213K). To make a bigger impact, the series presented a virtual “Where Are the Women?” Summit. Streamed by 2,700+ people, the panel addressed why women are underrepresented in U.S. history and social studies classrooms, and delivered educational resources to reverse this trend.

Inspiring generations, documentaries on four prolific writers premiered. First, an unvarnished look at unlikely author Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House” series helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. Flannery O’Connor didn’t shy away from examining themes of racism, religion, socioeconomic disparity and more in her works. Legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks redefined our understanding of the brain and mind. Born to Chinese immigrants in California, Amy Tan drew upon personal experiences for literary inspiration and became a global icon for Asian Americans.

“I just want to say thank you PBS. I mean, I’m such an admirer. So many great programs that you do in depth, shows that are not the usual, and shows about nature, shows about people. Thank you very much.” – Amy Tan

On a more rhythmic note, choreographer Twyla Tharp welcomed viewers to her rigorous creative process, while Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo — male ballerinas who mix artistry and joyous comedy — shared their signature style and message of equality, inclusion and social justice. Ballerina Boys was the most-streamed episode of American Masters‘ season with 186K+ video views.

American Masters turned up the volume on master trumpeter Doc Severinsen and renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and honed in on the legacies of artist Keith Haring and media personality Walter Winchell, revolutionaries in their own rights. And six iconic African American female entertainers who harnessed their celebrity to advance the civil rights movement were spotlit in How It Feels To Be Free. This program, Executive Produced by Alicia Keys, served as the representative program when American Masters was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.”

“The most amazing whatever-happened-to that you’ve seen in a long time.” – Primetimer on Doc Severinsen

Engaging a younger demographic, American Masters launched two digital series. The first, In the Making, followed the journeys of emerging BIPOC cultural artists (one of which was brought to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival), while Masters of Drag told stories of American drag pioneers and solidified drag as a performance art form. American Masters also opened its 34-year digital archive to the public, a treasure trove that includes 1,000 hours of footage from 1,000+ original, never-before-seen interviews with the movers and shakers of American culture.

To learn more about American Masters‘ robust offerings, visit their website.

Masters of Drag spotlit famous drag queen and personality Joan Jett Blakk, who announced her run for the presidency in Chicago 1992 with the slogan “Lick Bush in ’92”. Courtesy of Genyphyr Novak