Helen Keller: New Film Looks at Her Career, Politics and Controversies

October 5, 2021

American Masters — Becoming Helen Keller premieres Tuesday, October 19 at 9 p.m.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the new documentary Becoming Helen Keller will premiere on American Masters on Tuesday, October 19 at 9 p.m. The film examines the complex life and legacy of Helen Keller: author, activist, lecturer, force for disability rights, and human rights pioneer. The film explores how Keller, who was Deaf and Blind, used her celebrity to advocate for change as a champion of rights for the disabled, women, and those in poverty, and how she spoke out for civil rights at great cost.

With rarely seen photographs, film clips, and performances of her writing by Cherry Jones and Alexandria Wailes, the film explores Keller’s full life, revealing social obstacles she regularly encountered, progressive reforms she helped achieve, and controversial aspects of her life and legacy.

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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 and 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.”

Four women stand side by side, three with linked arms. Three wear hats and formal dress; the one on far right does not have hat and appears more casually dressed.

Second from left Helen Keller, and her longtime assistant Polly Thomson, third from left. Credit: Perkins School for the Blind

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.

Two young women face each other while sitting on a bench. They both have hair loosely swept into bun and curly bangs. To right, the taller woman wears a formal dark gown with puffy sleeves. The other woman wears a loose fitting light-color top.

Helen Keller at left, and Anne Sullivan, 1893. Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

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.

The film includes American Sign Language (ASL), closed captioning, and audio description for our Deaf, Blind and DeafBlind audiences. Alexandria Wailes provides 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.

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.

Watch the film on any platform starting October 19 at 9 p.m., including pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS and THIRTEEN app (thirteen.org/anywhere).

For more information about the film and its creators, see Becoming Helen Keller.