Directors: Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack
An American Masters presentation/Poet’s Poet Media Group/WNET/ITVS
Poet, essayist, memoirist, dancer, singer, storyteller, campaigner, protester, advocate, actor, the great Maya Angelou was an inspiration to many – and towering presence in African-American literature and culture. As a political totem for race and gender she would have been important enough, outspoken, strong, influential – and then there were her words for the page. Imitated but never as powerful as when coming from her voice, from her pen.
Angelou passed away in 2014, aged 86. She lived several lives and as she said herself wanted to do more than just survive – though she was indeed, several times over, a survivor. She wanted to thrive. And she did that with a calypso music career, with poetry that is recited at rallies and in schools, with books that are taught and were turned into films – and with public appearances that had her challenging authority, commanding respect.
Her great and fascinating life is the subject of this film, and she was around to contribute – the movie made over four years features plenty of fresh interview footage as well as archival clips and a cast of talking heads that includes Quincy Jones, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Angelou’s only son, Guy.
Yes it wobbles toward hagiography – but what a story!
Angelou escapes home (raped by her mother’s boyfriend, her mother didn’t take her side, didn’t buy her story) she decides to have her own sexual experience as a teen, doesn’t care too much for it but falls pregnant. She decides she will raise her one and only son without any input from the father.
Dancing and theatre roles including touring with Porgy and Bess, work in cabaret and strip clubs and from there, because she can dance and sing she becomes a legitimate musical act. Her storytelling skills translate to songwriting, her love of poetry – one of her escapes – leads to published material and her frank and forthright views see her as feminist and political icon. It’s hard to believe – given the power of so many of her words – that she hasn’t been the subject of a full-length documentary long before this.
And in a workmanlike, chronological order we learn about this fascinating life. What makes it hum and transcend platitudes is the fact that we get to hear from Maya Angelou – up close and personally.
A fascinating life and career it’s in some sense a shame we don’t get to hear about the husbands that were, at various points, in Angelou’s life – given she chose to be a single teen mother. That said, how important for her – in what is now released as a tribute piece – to not be defined by any of the men or the walk-on roles they had in her life. What we feel throughout is that Angelou puts the ‘grit’ in ‘integrity’ – And Still I Rise is about a life and career won only after being hard fought. Such stories barely exist any longer.
Maya Angelou And Still I Rise is part of this year’s Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand. The festival’s films screened in Wellington May 4-5, 2016 and in Auckland May 18-29, 2016.