American Masters joins PBS’ summer-long celebration of female trailblazers in honor of the women’s vote centennial with three new documentaries exploring the lives of remarkable changemakers, both past and present. Executive produced by Bette Midler, American Masters – Mae West: Dirty Blonde investigates the notorious entertainment icon who “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Featuring Candice Bergen, Lady Bunny, Margaret Cho, Natasha Lyonne, Ringo Starr, Dita Von Teese and more, the film makes its world premiere Tuesday, June 16 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, an artful and intimate meditation on the extraordinary life and works of the Nobel Prize-winning storyteller, premieres Tuesday, June 23 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). American Masters – Unladylike2020: The Changemakers, a one-hour documentary special illuminating the inspiring stories of pioneering female politicians from America’s past, premieres Friday, July 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Each film will be available to stream on pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app at the same time as the broadcast premiere.
American Masters — Mae West: Dirty Blonde is the first major documentary film to explore Mae West’s incredible life and career, as she worked tirelessly to become a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change. West earned great acclaim in every entertainment medium that existed during her lifetime. A full-time actress at the age of seven, vaudevillian performer at 14, dancing sensation at 25, Broadway playwright at 33, silver screen ingénue at 40, Vegas nightclub act at 62, recording artist at 73 and camp icon at 85, West left no format unconquered. She possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s, and still rare today. Though she was a comedian, West grappled with some of the more complex social issues of the 20th century, including race and class tensions, and imbued even her most salacious plotlines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy. The film is produced and directed by Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi.
In American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am the the Nobel laureate novelist, essayist, editor and professor leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition as seen through the prism of her literature. Inspired to write because no one took a “little black girl” seriously, Toni Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. Woven together with a rich collection of art, history, literature and personality, the film features discussions about her many critically acclaimed works, including novels “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon,” her role as an editor of iconic African American literature and her time teaching at Princeton University. The documentary is directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and features interviews with Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and Oprah Winfrey.
Timed with the 2020 presidential election and the women’s suffrage centennial, American Masters – Unladylike2020: The Changemakers focuses on political change and civic engagement, examining the risks women took over 100 years ago that continue to shape our political landscape today. Among the women highlighted in the special are Martha Hughes Cannon, the country’s first female state senator; Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress; Mary Church Terrell, a leader in the anti-lynching movement and a founder of the NAACP; Jovita Idar, a journalist, and president of the first Mexican American women’s civil rights organization; and Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who lobbied for U.S. citizenship, voting rights, and sovereignty for American Indians a century ago. The special is based on the Unladylike2020 multimedia series of documentary shorts that launched in March on the American Masters YouTube channel and continues Wednesdays through August 26, Women’s Equality Day.
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters set the standard for documentary film profiles, accruing widespread critical acclaim and earning 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, the American Masters website offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources and more. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.
American Masters – Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC’s American Masters for WNET. Directed and produced by Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi. Bette Midler and Michael Kantor are executive producers.
American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a production of Perfect Day Films Inc. in association with American Masters Pictures. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Produced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Johanna Giebelhaus, Chad Thompson and Tommy Walker. Michael Kantor is executive producer.
American Masters – Unladylike2020 is a production of Unladylike Productions, LLC in association with THIRTEEN’s American Masters. Directed, written and produced by Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley. Executive Producers for Unladylike2020 are Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley. Executive Producer for American Masters is Michael Kantor.
Major funding for American Masters – Mae West: Dirty Blonde is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Better Angels Society, Brice Brown, The Carson Family Charitable Trust, Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, The Sandpiper Group, and Susan Lacy.
Major funding for American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is provided by AARP and JustFilms / Ford Foundation.
Major funding for American Masters — Unladylike2020 is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional support provided by HumanitiesDC, the National Endowment for the Arts, Humanities Montana, The Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, and California Humanities.
Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Rosalind P. Walter, Judith and Burton Resnick, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Seton J. Melvin, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, and public television viewers.