American Masters Season 35 Finale Explores the Complex Life and Legacy of Helen Keller October 19 on PBS in Honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month
New documentary features narration by Rebecca Alexander, American Sign Language interpretation by Alexandria Wailes and Warren “WAWA” Snipe, audio description and closed captioning
Emmy and Tony Award winner Cherry Jones performs Keller’s writings
American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller examines one of the 20th century’s human rights pioneers in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The new documentary rediscovers the complex life and legacy of author and activist Helen Keller (1880-1968), who was deaf and blind since childhood, exploring how she used her celebrity and wit to advocate for social justice, particularly for women, workers, people with disabilities and people living in poverty. Closing the series’ 35th season, American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller premieres nationwide Tuesday, October 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), http://pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app.
American Masters tells Keller’s story through rarely seen photographs, archival film clips and interviews with historians, scholars and disability rights advocates. Narrated by author, psychotherapist and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander, the film features on-camera performances from Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor Cherry Jones reading Keller’s writings. Actor and dancer Alexandria Wailes provides American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of Keller’s words with all other ASL interpretation by writer and rapper Warren “WAWA” Snipe. The program also features audio description by National Captioning Institute and closed captioning by VITAC.
Keller first came into public view at a young age, soon after her teacher Anne Sullivan taught her to communicate. As she progressed through her education, graduating from Radcliffe College, Keller steadily gained international attention. Though she lived until age 87, became an accomplished writer and activist, Keller continues to be immortalized as a child, such as in the U.S. Capitol with the statue of her at a water pump. She recounted this moment from her youth in her first autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” later made famous by the book’s stage and screen adaptation, “The Miracle Worker.” American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller delves beyond the mythologized disability icon to present a critical look at her rich, decades-long career and some of its controversies, including her support of socialism and her changing positions on eugenics. The film reveals little-known details of Keller’s personal life and examines her public persona and advocacy, including the progressive reforms she helped achieve. Speaking out for civil rights at great personal cost, Keller supported women’s suffrage, the NAACP, access to health care and assistive technology as a human right, and workers’ rights as a member of the Socialist Party of America and the labor union Industrial Workers of the World.
American Masters is committed to access for the documentary. The series website will have an accessible landing page for the film, including tools for changing color contrast and text size. An additional version of the film with extended audio description will also be available to stream. Marketing efforts for Becoming Helen Keller also integrate ASL, audio description and captions.
To expand the film’s impact, The WNET Group’s Community Engagement department worked with Alabama Public Television, Iowa PBS, WCNY (Syracuse, New York), WFYI (Indianapolis, Indiana), WGCU Public Media (Southwest Florida), WQED (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), WQLN Public Media (Lake Eerie region, Pennsylvania) and WXXI (Greater Rochester area, New York) to produce new accessible content for broadcast and digital platforms. Each station worked with local advisors and subject matter experts to create this companion content. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)-aligned educational resources for grades 6-12, created by The WNET Group’s Kids’ Media and Education department in partnership with disability experts, will be available via PBS LearningMedia.
Now in its 35th season on PBS, American Masters was recently nominated for two Primetime Emmy® Awards and received two News & Doc Emmy nominations. The series illuminates the lives and creative journeys of our nation’s most enduring artistic giants—those who have left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape—through compelling, unvarnished stories. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has earned widespread critical acclaim and 28 Emmy Awards—including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special—14 Peabodys, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, an Oscar and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of more than 250 masters past and present, the American Masters website offers full episodes, film outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the podcast American Masters: Creative Spark, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of The WNET Group.
American Masters is available for streaming concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.
American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller is a production of Straight Ahead Pictures, Inc., American Masters Pictures and ITVS. Michael Pressman is Director. Laurie Block is Consulting Producer. Mary McDonagh Murphy is Producer. Writers are John Crowley and Mary McDonagh Murphy. Susan Lacy and Michael Kantor are executive producers. For ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer is executive producer.
Support for American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller is provided in part by National Endowment for the Humanities, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NEC Foundation of America, The Gibney Family Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, The Better Angels Society including The Fullerton Family Charitable Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, Harris Mathews Charitable Foundation, Inc., Irving and Sara Selis Foundation, Inc., Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, Newcastle Foundation Trust, Alabama Humanities Foundation, Dorothy S. Koretzky Memorial Fund, and Alice & Jim Hardigg.
Original series production funding for American Masters is provided by Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Mrs. Rosalind P. Walter, Seton J. Melvin, Vital Projects Fund, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Cheryl & Philip Milstein Family Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Judith & Burton Resnick, Ellen & James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, and The Ambrose Monell Foundation.
About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.
ITVS is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has, for over 25 years, funded and partnered with a diverse range of documentary filmmakers to produce and distribute untold stories. ITVS incubates and co-produces these award-winning films and then airs them for free on PBS via our weekly series, INDEPENDENT LENS, as well as on other PBS series and through our digital platform, OVEE. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more information, visit itvs.org.