Directors: Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At the time of Maya Angelou’s death in 2014 at the age of 86, she was a world icon. The holder of more than 50 honorary doctorates, she was known to millions as a close, personal friend and mentor to Oprah Winfrey. Another famous friend, Bill Clinton, asked her to write and deliver a poem at his first inauguration. Long a poet, her debut prose work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), launched her into the stratosphere of fame, winning millions of readers and admirers internationally who identified with and gained strength from her candid memoir of growing up black and female in Stamps, Arkansas. The book frightened a lot of people, too. Over the years, the book has been banned from various junior high and high school libraries and classrooms in the United States for sexual explicitness and violence; in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee banned it for preaching “bitterness and hatred against whites.”
Angelou was a certified renaissance woman whose one long lifetime ranged farther and higher than most people of any race or class, let alone an African-American woman from a broken home who was dropped into Jim Crow Arkansas following several years in more permissive California and then experienced the racial tumult of every decade to the present. As the directors of And Still I Rise put it, “An eloquent poet, writer and performer, Maya Angelou’s life intersected with the civil rights struggle, the Harlem Writers Guild, the New Africa movement, the women’s movement and the cultural and political realignments of the 1970s and ’80s.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is a two-hour documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series that works hard to encapsulate the many facets of Angelou’s life. My own awareness of Angelou comes mainly through her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, so I found this documentary revelatory. Who knew she was a dancer! Who knew she sang, if not beautifully, then with a kind of actorly expression that would find further voice in her role as Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking miniseries Roots (1977) and a dozen more parts through the 1990s and 2000s! I didn’t know she had a son, that she was married twice to white men, that she included B.B. King and South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make among her lovers, that she directed the quite wonderful feature film Down in the Delta (1998). Angelou was voracious in her pursuit of experiences and challenges, and, to my shame, I didn’t even know the half of what she accomplished.
In some ways, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise doesn’t either. Tackling such a consequential and eventful life forced directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack to make choices about what to include. Generally, they make good use of archival footage to illustrate parts of Angelou’s story. They include clips of her dancing and singing from Columbia Pictures’ Calypso Heat Wave (1957), made to capitalize on the popularity of calypso and Afro-Cuban music during the late 1950s. We also watch her deliver her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during President Clinton’s inauguration—or rather, we watch it in bits and pieces as the directors repeatedly insert Bill Clinton’s talking-head reminiscences about both the day and his friendship with Angelou. Other luminaries who are interviewed include Diahann Carroll, Alfre Woodard, Hillary Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Common, Louis Gossett Jr. and, of course, Oprah. These interviews show how much of an inspiration Angelou was, but only Cicely Tyson seemed comfortable speaking about Angelou as a regular person with flaws and quirks.
The most emotionally satisfying commentator on Angelou is her son, Guy Johnson, who talks of seeing his mother very little, but forgiving her absences as her attempt to keep a roof over his head. He is moved to tears about her sacrifices and her guilt about her absences and the fact that he was crippled in a car accident while on a trip with her. He also regrets that she never found a satisfying romantic relationship. The film also includes fairly robust information about her involvement in the civil rights movement, which put her in the orbit of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, the latter a close friend. I enjoyed seeing her in still photos and footage with James Baldwin, who encouraged her to devote herself to writing and telling the truth, and who is a man always worth listening to.
Hercules and Coburn Whack spend time on her writing process as personal therapy and liberation, and allude to the power of words for her by having her recount her five years of voluntary muteness as a child, a result of thinking she had killed someone with her voice. Disappointing was the fact that for a woman who left a large body of written work, including eight autobiographies, we hear so little of her prose and poetry. Indeed, we learn more about Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, in which Angelou performed, than we do about her own plays and screenplays, despite the fact that the filmmakers thought to include her poem and play title And Still I Rise in their own title.
The filmmakers worked with Angelou on this documentary until her death. While Angelou is frank about her life, the film tends to gloss quickly over her childhood rape and her time as a sex worker, offering instead her account of her calculated and personally disappointing first adult sexual encounter. If you’re going to bring the subject up, then you should follow it up with her attitude toward sex and relationships over time. Instead, it goes nowhere and seems more like the teasing opening sex scene so many movies punt to today. In addition, don’t expect to learn anything that questions her almost sainted status today—the people in this film and those behind the scenes love her and it shows.
I applaud the effort to bring the life of this seminal figure in African-American history and culture to the screen and think this is must-viewing for anyone who knows little about Maya Angelou. At the same time, this film could have been much more. Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) took an equally complex and extraordinary subject, Nina Simone, and told a riveting warts-and-all story that is one of the best documentaries of its type ever made. I hope that another documentarian brings that kind of razor-sharp observation to another telling of the life of Maya Angelou.