Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on Dr. Maya Angelou’s 40th birthday. It was her friend Jimmy, or James Baldwin as we know and revere him, that pulled the late writer out of her devastated stupor, dragging her to a party and encouraging to tell her personal truth through the written word. Those words became her critically acclaimed autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” It was a book that would forever change the landscape of American literature, redefining what was acceptable for Black women to talk about publically. Two and a half decades later, Dr. Angelou extended that simple act of kindness when she comforted a young artist on a film set. This young man was in turmoil, nearly suffocating to death under a rage that he could not contain; we knew him as the great Tupac Shakur.
I was born during the final three decades of Dr. Angelou’s life. As such, she has always been familiar to me, her poems and books readily available; her words at once recognizable and irreproachable. She was this regal figure in many ways; a heroine for a girl born at the tail end of the 20th century. Dr. Angelou was, as director John Singleton called her, “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture." Like her friend James Baldwin, she had a deep and innate understanding of Blackness and what it meant to be Black, not just in America but across the globe. And yet, it was not just her understanding of Black life that made her so prolific; she also understood Black womanhood in a way that spoke and continually speaks to the Black female soul.
Directors Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules’ expansive documentary, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise" guides audiences from Dr. Angelou’s very humble beginnings to the final days of her astounding life. The film doesn't just tell her story, but it shows in great detail how history, cultural events and particular moments significantly affected Dr. Angelou's world view while galvanizing the activist within her.
Through interviews, archival footage, and her written words, Dr. Maya Angelou effectively tells her own story in this film. The rich detail in which she recalls her childhood and formative years creates a warm tone that blankets itself over the documentary as if the audience were speaking with an old friend. Adding to the narrative are those who knew her best, including Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Lou Gossett Jr, and Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson. The film is stuffed full of never before seen gems that paint a complete picture of this renaissance woman. What amazed me most of all, was not just the breadth of Dr. Angelou’s life, but most astoundingly, her ability to be raw and transparent about herself and her experiences. At times, her anger was palpable but instead of shielding herself from that pain, she embraced it, letting it propel her forward in both her personal and professional lives. Just as her pain scared her, her joy seeped through as well, casting a bright light over the dark shadows of our history.
Told in a linear fashion, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," lends itself beautifully to a platform like PBS's American Masters for airing. Viewing this film shortly after, Raoul Peck's, "I Am Not Your Negro," a film about James Baldwin's life, provided an excellent companion piece despite the much more traditional style of filmmaking in "And Still I Rise." Directors Coburn Whack and Hercules captured Dr. Maya Angelou's life honestly and thoroughly, from the streets of Los Angeles and her grandmother's home in Stamps, Arkansas to Accra, Ghana, and Harlem, New York.
It seems shocking that this is the first feature documentary about Dr. Maya Angelou's life. However, it's a beautiful and all encompassing piece that reveals parts of the late Presidential Medal of Freedom Awardee's story that have long since been neglected or forgotten altogether. Most importantly, the film sends a powerful message. Dr. Angelou talked and wrote about the things that ailed her, and in doing so gave us all permission to do the same.
"Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise" will be released in select theaters in New York and LA on Friday, October 14th. The film will air on PBS' "American Masters" this upcoming winter. Click here for more information on the film including details about additional screenings.
Watch a trailer for the documentary below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami