Directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack have gifted us with a captivating, well-crafted, thoroughly entertaining documentary about the extraordinary writer, actress, singer, poet and political activist Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise is not just a biography. It is an artistic, social and political history of our time. The directors have captured the spirit of one of the most vital, self made creative artists of the Twentieth Century.
We apprehend Maya (or Ms. Angelou as she sometimes liked to be called!) through vintage pictures, film, and the words of her contemporaries: President Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, her son Guy Johnson, the rapper Common, film director John Singleton, and the actors Louis Gossett, Jr., Alfre Woodard, and Cicely Tyson.
The film deftly captures the essence of a woman whose life and creativity distills main themes of the American experience from slavery to post-industrialism. Maya’s life had the dramatic ups and downs of pulp fiction – being raped at age seven, being repeatedly relocated to exotic and more prosaic locations all over the world, becoming U.S. Poet Laureate, and giving President Clinton’s inaugural poem. Her story was not just one of survival, but of dramatic triumph.
The story is grounded in Maya’s formative childhood in the small southern backwater of Stamps, Arkansas. Three-year-old Maya and her five-year-old brother Bailey are sent there by train from Los Angeles as very young children with only tags on their arms to identify and direct them to safe haven to be raised by a series of relatives.
“I was terribly hurt and vastly loved in Stamps,” Maya confesses. Grandmother Johnson brought in books from the white school to teach the future Poet Laureate to read. Crippled Uncle Willy taught the children their math. Her protective older brother Bailey reaffirmed what his little sister already knew, but cherished hearing: You are smart!
But owning land and the town’s store did not protect them from the indignities of being African American in Arkansas. The family had to hide Uncle Willie from Ku Klux Klan violence. Even the neighbor children mocked Grandmother Johnson with taunts and exhibiting their genitalia to the older woman.
Bounced to St. Louis to live with her mother when she was six, the future author lived amidst crime, prostitution and gambling. Her mother’s boyfriend raped the seven-year-old Maya. When she named the rapist, he was jailed and kicked to death on his first day in jail. Fearing the power of her own voice, the young girl went mute for five years. During this time, she read voraciously, learned and memorized, laying the ground work for a life of words spoken and written, sung and acted.
She took her formal and informal education to San Francisco in the 1950s where she found work in nightclubs. Her singing and dancing took her around the world. But her wide-ranging performances took her from her young son Guy Johnson, absences which she regretted and compensated for the rest of her life.
The smart young performer saw and experienced differential treatment based on race and class. Politicization fired her temper. She began to speak out and write up what she saw and lived – first songs, then short stories. In California she met Langston Hughes who urged her to come to New York. There she joined with him, Max Roach, and Nikki Giovanni, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Godfrey Cambridge, and Sidney Poitier in the Harlem Writers Guild. In Paris, she forged a lifetime friendship with James Baldwin. In the U.S., Martin Luther King, Jr. became her brother; Malcolm X a dear friend.
Malcolm told her: “If you have something to protest, you should be in the streets.” So she pursued the fight against injustice with protests and organizing, as well as through performance and writing. On the stage, her riveting role as The White Queen in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, upset and moved audiences, some to run for the exits!
Maya’s world was shaken with the assassinations of Malcolm and Martin Luther King, Jr. “They knocked me out,” Angelou told friends. She took refuge with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife Judith who persuaded her to fight back against racist violence by writing her life story. She talked, sang, and acted her way to the best-selling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by 1969.
Poetry, professorships, film directing, celebrity appearances, friendship with presidents, and political activism followed. Her constant energy produced the creative acts which allowed her to weave the strands of violence, pain, loss, discovery, friendship, and passion into a uniquely American experience – popular and accessible.
As President Clinton explained when asked why he had Maya Angelou give his inauguration poem: “She understood the times that we were living in.”
American Masters — Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Premieres nationwide Tuesday, February 21, 8-10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
(Disclosure: This reviewer’s mother served for years as Maya Angelou’s secretary.)