Film Review: “When I Rise” (available on Netflix)
This is a documentary, a biography. It is unusually riveting both because the film itself is so well done and especially because of the remarkable story it tells, the story of an amazing woman, Barbara Smith Conrad, who came from rural Texas to become one of America’s leading opera singers.
Her home town, Center Point, Texas, was established in 1865 by recently freed Black slaves, her own great-grandfather being one of the founders. It remained an almost entirely Black community until its final residents dispersed in the early 21st century, leaving it nothing but a ghost town. Nurtured on Black church music that was a blend of early spirituals, Baptist hymns, and an almost Charismatic fervor, Barbara never lost her sense that music – whether that of black slaves or Italian opera composers – must be sung from the heart.
Because of the opposition she faced as a Black singer in a strongly, even cruelly racist state, this is more than a story of small-town-girl-makes-good. Daring to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where she was one of the first Black students ever, she was soon cast for a leading role in an opera produced by the school’s music department. Just as quickly, she was removed from the role because of pressure from across the state and even from several state legislators.
The story gained national attention and moved Harry Belafonte, then at the peak of his popularity, to become her unoffical sponsor, opening many doors for further training and for performing. Once she got a hearing, her career began to flourish.
She has starred often at the Metropolitan, has been honored (in 2010) by the Texas State Legislature, and named Outstanding Alum at UT. Through it all, she has remained a woman of poise, dignity, and integrity.
She is only two years older than I am and I remember well the racial turmoil of the 60s, though none of it touched my little hometown in Northern California. To this day it remains difficult for me to grasp that the ignorance and hatred of racism can still be a real force in our own time.
I will never forget the photo on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner, probably in 1958 or so, of the deacons of a Baptist church in the South, locked arm in arm in front of the church doors one Sunday. They had heard that someone Black was going to attend their church that morning. Though not yet a Christian myself, I was repulsed by the scene.
Even more, I am inspired by people like Barbara Smith Conrad, whose depth of faith, moral courage, and great dignity is greater than all the pettiness of the human hearts who opposed her. God always leaves at least a few of his people even in the darkest situations, people who are themselves candles keeping evil at bay.