‘American Masters’ profiles female trailblazers

When a PBS documentary refers to its female subjects as “Unladylike,” it’s certain that it’s meant with irony.

Utilizing a combination of animation and artwork, a number of trailblazer profiles from the “American Masters” YouTube channel fuel the series’ new episode “Unladylike2020” Friday, July 10 (check local listings). Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife,” “Billions”) narrates the program — subtitled “The Changemakers” and commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage — by focusing on women who made principally political marks, from child-rights activist Grace Abbott to Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

Also involved in “Unladylike2020” is Lorraine Toussaint, whose many acting credits include “Orange Is the New Black,” “Law & Order” and the Oscar-winning movie “Selma.” She furnishes the voice of Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who lobbied against segregation for virtually her entire lifetime.

Expectedly, Toussaint finds Terrell’s story relevant in the current climate, but she’s pleased with the overall range of “Unladylike2020” subjects. “In very different ways,” she says, “all of these women were courageous and provocative, and they really moved to the beat of their own drums. They shaped the world that I am now privileged to live in, where there are certain rights that I have taken for granted. It has been a revelation.”

Toussaint reports “Unladylike2020” producer-director Charlotte Mangin “called me directly” about being involved. “She knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, then I called her back and said, ‘Sure, I will absolutely do this.’ I have a daughter who is 15, so I am always looking for role models for her.

“This was an utter and complete education for me,” Toussaint adds. “The women they chose are not the likely ones you’ve heard about. There are scores of women who were on the heels of the famous ones; we all know the short list, but the whole list is endless, and I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about these women while having the honor of telling the stories of their lives.”

A co-star of the upcoming Gloria Steinem movie biography “The Glorias,” Toussaint’s next television character also could be a bit “unladylike,” since she’ll appear opposite Queen Latifah in CBS’ forthcoming series reboot of “The Equalizer.” She appreciates the chance “Unladylike2020” offered to use her voice only, which she also did on the animated “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.”

“I do recognize that it has a certain resonance, mostly from my teenager,” she muses. “Early on in her disciplining, she would say, ‘Oh, Mama … please don’t use “the voice“!’ It’s nice to use ‘the voice’ in a more positive way.”


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