I will confess that it is challenging being disabled, even in the relative prosperity and opportunity offered by living in America.
Yet, despite the challenges of growing up with a disability, the lack of access, the shut doors, the denial of rights and the inability to support even the most basic of needs in daily living, it is difficult for me to fathom what it would be like to grow up intensely and fervently hated.
Sure, I have it hard. But, I've never been threatened solely on the basis of my physical appearance. I've never been physically attacked or verbally abused solely because of the color of my skin.
I've never been able to fathom the existence of hatred based upon such things as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economics or any other such "labels" that we use to divide ourselves from one another. It amazes me that racism still exists in our country, and I do, at times, look at those who survive it with dignity, love and tenderness intact with an undeniable respect.
Enter Barbara Smith Conrad.
Do you know the name? Probably not, unless you're familiar with opera.
Barbara Smith Conrad is a Black woman, a highly acclaimed mezzo soprano whose childhood love of music led her to study music in the late 1950's at the University of Texas and has allowed her an incredible career that has included performing with Harry Belafonte, performing numerous operas, performing for the Pope, performing at the White House and being named a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Texas with a scholarship in her name.
If this would be all you'd know about Barbara Smith Conrad, it would be enough. These are the experiences that have defined her, not the firestorm of protests that met her being cast alongside a white University of Texas classmate in October 1956 in a production of Dido and Aeneas. It goes without saying that such a decision was not popular, not in Texas and not in 1957. Before long, outside influences began to weigh in on the decision including from the Texas state legislature. Finally, she was expelled from the cast by a relenting academic dean and UT's President, a weak-willed (Yes, that was editorialized) man named Logan Wilson who never did have the courage to even meet with the student.
Fortunately, the firestorm didn't end with the university giving in. The school's newspaper printed a story about the issue and, before long, the young woman had attracted nationwide attention and support that would lead to threatening letters, having to leave school temporarily and, on the flip side, strong statements of support from such performers as Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr.
This event could have, some say should have, defined the rest of Barbara Smith Conrad's life. Yet, to look at the woman is to see a woman of class, dignity and transcendence. She practically defines grace, a grace beautifully captured in Mat Hames' doc based upon her experiences at UT and in the years that have followed.
When I Rise recently received the Black Expressions Award and was named the Audience Award winner for Best Feature during the Indianapolis International Film Festival, recognition that was consistent with the film's nationwide praise for a Hames' beautifully assembled, subtle direction that allows the light to shine where it should - solely on Barbara Smith Conrad.
There are scenes that follow, scenes that we've grown accustomed to seeing when a person, a legislature or a community realizes their wrongs and attempts to make amends such as when the Texas legislature issued a proclamation for Smith Conrad in 2009. Again, Smith Conrad rises even above the legislature with her trademark with and gracious personality.
In documentaries, it is often popular to "sell the drama" of a person's life. It helps to sell the story and, if we're being honest, can make for better cinema. Kudos to Hames for transcending the drama of Smith Conrad's college experiences and focusing on the woman that she has become and the example that she gives everyone that even when faced with hatred we have the power to choose that love define us.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic