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Maya Angelou documentary gets up close and personal with a cultural icon

Larger than life

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Although best known for her poetry and for memoirs like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was also a a distinguished actress, a calypso singer, and a lifelong civil rights activist. - COURTESY WAYNE MILLER
  • Courtesy Wayne Miller
  • Although best known for her poetry and for memoirs like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was also a a distinguished actress, a calypso singer, and a lifelong civil rights activist.

'It may be necessary to encounter defeat, so we can know who the hell we are," says Maya Angelou in the opening montage of And Still I Rise. The newly released film — which will have its local premiere at this year's Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival — is the first feature-length documentary about the author, poet and civil rights activist whose best-known book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, has been a source of inspiration for millions.

In 2014, Angelou granted filmmakers Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules a series of interviews, during what would turn out to be the final months of her life.

The two directors also filmed reminiscences from Angelou's longtime friends and family, including her son Guy Johnson, actress Cicely Tyson, and fellow Southerner Bill Clinton, who chose Angelou as the first black person, and first woman, to deliver a poem at a presidential inauguration.

And Still I Rise also includes a wealth of archival materials, ranging from footage of Angelou interviewing a young B.B. King to performance clips from her late-1950s career as a calypso singer and dancer.

In the following interview, Rita Coburn Whack talks about Angelou's generosity of spirit, her willingness to reflect on life's most painful moments, and the director's own experiences as a black woman in an industry where diversity remains in scarce supply.

Indy: I'd like to begin by asking about your opening montage and its quote from Maya Angelou. At what point in the making of the documentary did you decide to open with that? And how would you say it sets up the rest of the film?

Rita Coburn Whack: You know, we tried so many openings, and none of them stuck. One was her saying that being a black girl in the segregated South — I'm paraphrasing — was like the rust on the razor to the throat, an unnecessary insult. But that came off as really hard, especially as part of a montage, although it's still in the film.

So we kept digging and digging, and when we found that quote in the BBC archives, I said, "That's it, that's the beginning." Because that's really the through-line of the film. She'd been abused as a child and rejected by her mother; she'd come through the civil rights movement, believing that freedom was gonna be birthed in the '60s; she loved and lost and was divorced, trying hard to raise a child, and then her son has this horrible accident. She encountered so many defeats, and she got up from them.

Your opening image — the man facing off against the tanks in Tiananmen Square — was not what I'd expected to see. It's like, from the first frame, it challenges your preconceptions of what the film will be.

Right, it's that deep for all of us. And that's what she was for all of us. If you went to one of her Thanksgiving parties, they lasted for four days and encompassed up to 300 people. There'd be veterans there that had no place to go. There'd be people from Ghana, people from Asia, people from all over.

So it was always in my mind that we needed to show her as a world figure. Because her being a woman and her being black goes without saying, and gives her a certain set of experiences. But she embraced all races, and all manners of people and their challenges. So by starting the film with the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square — and then combining it with images of the women's movement and Rosa Parks and all that — people can universally identify with what she was saying.

You mention her having a certain set of experiences that are recognizable to black women in particular. Can you give examples of how those resonated with you personally?

Yeah, one of the things she said was about being aware of your displacement as a Southern black girl. And now, if I move that up into 2016, I would say that being part of the film industry — as glorious as that is, and as wonderful as this opportunity is — I still don't see many people like me. So my challenge then becomes to work with people who are not like me, and to have them respect me and my ideas, and to treat me as an equal. That doesn't always happen.

I'm hoping that people are going to change, and I think Maya Angelou was, too. But I have to tell you that there were a lot of challenges, in making this film, that I think directly relate to being a woman and to being black.

Can you give me a specific?

What I'm saying is that there are few black women directing, few black women producing, few black women behind the camera. And in my case, I'm going to say that, while all races can work on this film, there should be people that have the sensibility that comes from the communities that the film is representing.

So I'm looking for a cameraman that knows how to deal with 25 different skin colors when we shoot black people. I'm looking for someone who kind of knows, when I'm talking to older black people, that there's a certain way you act around them, out of respect for everything that they've been through, which is just kind of natural in my culture.

So, in terms of specifics, there's a way of being that I need to have in the room, that I don't want to have to teach you about. And I'll give you an example: If I am working on a film with someone — and I'm not naming anyone in the chain of this — but if I'm working with someone who spells Ku Klux Klan with a "C," then I'm thinking we've got a little bit of a problem here. I need to know that you're at a certain level, so we can move the story deeper. Otherwise, you are doing the story an injustice.

Film director Rita Coburn Whack
  • Film director Rita Coburn Whack

Let's talk a bit about the logistics of putting this all together. How did you manage to get Maya Angelou onboard?

I was working as a producer for Oprah Radio from 2006 to 2010, and Maya Angelou was one of my radio hosts. So I would spend three to four days a month with her, in either her home in Winston-Salem, or in New York City in Harlem, or out on the road with her. We would do three, probably four programs at a time, and then I would take them back and edit them. And she was great on the radio, because she was such a conversationalist. She could talk to everybody, from little kids to Bishop Desmond Tutu to Martina McBride.

You get that from seeing her talk to Dave Chappelle. It's like you want to be in that room, talking to those people. Or listening, actually.

Absolutely. So here I am working for Oprah Radio, and Oprah says go down to her home. I get to her home and she says, "You don't have to take a hotel, you will stay with me." And I'm thinking, oh my goodness. And she says, "You're coming in here and you've got everything together, I understand all that. But in a few months or so, we're just going to be having fun." And so she put me at ease — as much as you could be at ease around someone that regal.

So I'm listening to her talk to Winnie Mandela, I'm listening to her talk to Common and Kanye West, Martina McBride and Dolly Parton. I'm listening to all of this, and I'm going, "Who has this kind of range? This is history. This needs to be a documentary."

And when I talked to her about it, she said to me, "Do you know what you're asking?" And I didn't know. But I've since come to learn that I was asking her to go over her life — near the end of her life — all over again. She was reliving everything, and I believe that in the end it was cathartic for her.

Were there moments during the interviews where you were just sitting there thinking, "Oh my god, I'm so glad she's saying this, and that we're here to capture it."

For me, with every person I interview, it's what do they say that no one else can say? Everybody can say how Caged Bird made them feel — and we do give that a bit of time — but only President Clinton could talk about why he chose her for the inauguration, and only Guy Johnson could talk about being there with her during the civil rights movement.

With Maya Angelou, that moment for me came when she talked about her son's accident, which happened when he was 16. And at the time we were taping, he was close to 70. But to watch her go all the way back to that point: She pauses, she puts her hands down, she sighs, and then she lifts herself back up, determined to go on. She realized she was all the way back there, and it hurt. In one fell swoop, it checked all the boxes of her humanity. It takes her from being just an icon to being a human being, to being a mother, to being a woman, to feeling that way.

A similar moment happened with Cicely Tyson. I was interviewing her, and she did a pause that was so long, a couple of the crew looked at each other and they were ready to shut down. It was like, "This is the end, you've already done everything." And because her head was down, I held my hand up, like, "Wait." And when she looked back up, she delivered the line "I hope she's happy," in a way that no one else could have.

You never would have gotten that if you had shut it down. So, as a filmmaker, I don't presuppose anything about the film. I think you chase the film until you find that it's chasing you.

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