After five years spent delving into 4,000 photographs and 200 hours of footage, directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack introduce the first feature documentary about author Maya Angelou, set to open in theaters Friday.
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” chronicles the life of the noted writer, poet, civil rights activist, dancer, singer and general cultural icon. In addition to her most noteworthy accomplishments, it highlights lesser-known moments of her life that culminated in some of her greatest work.
As the film opens with a scene from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, Angelou’s voice guides us through a collage of previously unseen archival footage and video imagery. Early in the film, we hear her thoughts about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7; later she discusses the 1969 release of her critically acclaimed autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The film premiered in Los Angeles on Sept. 21 as part of the International Documentary Association Screening Series. Hercules and Whack led a discussion along with special guests from the film, including Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., dancer Don Martin and Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson.
“We wanted to drop you into a time period,” Whack told the audience. “You hear [Angelou’s] voice at 45, at 60. She went back and relived it as she told the story.”
Angelou died in 2014, three years into the film’s development. No longer able to rely on her storytelling and memories, the directors admit the project became increasingly difficult. Hercules and Whack turned to a strategy of connecting her written autobiographical stories with the mass of archival footage.
“I think that’s what we found her writing did. She found a truth about herself. She defined her voice as a woman,” Whack said. “I think what we wanted to do was the old ‘show, don’t tell’—show you how all of that life ended up on paper over and over again.”
The film features interviews with those closest to Angelou, including Oprah Winfrey, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, hip-hop artist Common, actress Cicely Tyson, record producer Quincy Jones, actress Alfre Woodard and Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson. In providing more intimate glimpses at Angelou, her friends reveal some of her hidden moments. The documentary also establishes important historical context about the life and times of a black woman who lived from the late 1920s into the new millennium.
Born in 1928, Angelou in her life traversed nearly 90 years of significant history. Including her role in Bill Clinton’s run for president, her affection toward Malcolm X and her confrontation with Tupac Shakur, the documentary positions Angelou’s legacy as a black woman uniquely at the frontier of American culture, with an impact that stretched well beyond U.S. borders. “This woman cataloged international history with her life,” said Whack.
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” is the only documentary film about Angelou in which she was actively involved. Future documentaries will lack the advantage of her guidance, candid remembrances and specific conversations. Hercules and Whack’s directing, paired with Angelou’s presence in the film, provides a fulfilling experience of the life and legacy of an icon.