Media

Maya Angelou’s Extraordinary Life Chronicled in New Film

In a Black History Month special, we remember the legacy of the legendary writer and activist, through a new documentary biopic that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Maya Angelou
Photo Credit: Democracy Now!

For the first time, a documentary has chronicled Maya Angelou's remarkable life. She was raped as a child and refused to speak for five years. She went on to become an accomplished singer and actress, then worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After King’s assassination, with encouragement by the author James Baldwin, Angelou penned "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," her first of seven autobiographies. In 1993 she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. We air highlights of Angelou’s work and speak to the co-producers and directors of the film, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, as well as Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson.
 
Video and full transcript of a Democracy Now! interview with the directors and co-producers and of the film below:

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Black History Month special, as we remember the life and legacy of the legendary poet, playwright, civil rights activist, Maya Angelou. Now, for the first time, a documentary chronicles her remarkable life, beginning with her traumatic childhood. She was raped and refused to speak for five years. She went on to become an accomplished singer and actress, then worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After King’s assassination, with encouragement by the author James Baldwin, Angelou penned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first of seven autobiographies. The book launched the phenomenal career for which she is known around the world as an award-winning author and people’s poet. Five years ago this week, President Obama bestowed upon her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The new documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, takes its title from one of Maya Angelou’s most beloved works.
 
MAYA ANGELOU: You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
 
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Just ’cause I walk as if I have oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
 
Just like suns and like moons,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I rise.
 
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
 
Does my sassiness upset you?
Don’t take it so hard
Just ’cause I laugh as if I have gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
 
You can shoot me with your words,
You can cut me with your lies,
You can kill me with your hatefulness,
But just like life, I’ll rise.
 
Does my sexiness offend you?
Oh, does it come as a surprise
That I dance as if I have diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
 
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past rooted in pain
I rise
A black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
 
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak miraculously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the hope and the dream of the slave.
And so, naturally, there I go rising.
 
AMY GOODMAN: Maya Angelou, reading from her poem "Still I Rise." Surprisingly, Angelou has never been the subject of a feature-length documentary, until now. The new film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, offers insight into the iconic writer’s public and personal life through rare archival footage and in-depth interviews with Angelou and her friends, from rapper Common to Oprah to former President Bill Clinton.
 
Last month, during the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with the co-producers and directors of the film, Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, as well as Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson. I began by asking Rita for a thumbnail sketch of Maya Angelou’s life.
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: So, you have a person that’s born in 1928 in Stamps, Arkansas. By 1935, she goes to St. Louis, so she’s actually part of the Great Migration. By the time she goes to San Francisco in her teens and then leaves there and goes into—in the 1960s into New York—
 
AMY GOODMAN: But for a second, she’s being handed off between her grandmother, her mother.
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: She’s being handed off. I think the overarching thing that’s happened in her life is that she’s experienced a lot of rejection, she’s experienced abandonment, she’s experienced not being accepted, from that racism to even inside her home. And so, when we start the film with one of her quotes—"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated"—it sums up how she lived her life.
 
AMY GOODMAN: She was raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend.
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes, at seven.
 
AMY GOODMAN: She—at seven years old. She didn’t speak for the next five years?
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: She didn’t speak for the next five years. But she also says, when she decided to speak, she had a lot to say. But during those five years, she read. And that is one of the equalizers. And also, go back to the South, at a time when people carried themselves, blacks, with a certain comportment. They may have—there may have been poor people around, but for her, her family was not poor. Her grandmother owned a store and owned land. And so, she was educated from the moment she got there. So, in that five years, she’s reading Balzac, Guy de Maupassant. She’s reading the kind of work that would give her a college education from seven to 13, all of Shakespeare’s works. So she’s a self-educated person in a South that blacks held in esteem about education.
 
AMY GOODMAN: And how does she transfer that into—as she moves into adulthood, where does she head? You talk about her going to New York.
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: Well, when she goes, she has all of that background in her. It’s ingrained in her. And she also has, from Grandmother Henderson, religion, biblically based, classically taught. And then, from her mother, Vivian Baxter—Vivian Baxter’s family like more like a group of gangsters. I mean, they fought, they gambled. It was a fast life. So she has the street smarts, she has extraordinary intelligence, she has faith. And she ends up taking that and having the strength to go and try new things. So, it’s not like it came from nothing. It came from all of that together.
 
BOB HERCULES: And she—when she went to New York, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. And she had been writing, and she had run into Langston Hughes and John Killens. And they convinced her to move to New York in the late ’50s and join the Harlem Writers Guild, which was a very important thing for her, because then she was in a community of writers, and they could critique her work, and she could critique their work. And it really, in a way, changed her life and kind of set her on that path to become a writer, though she was still performing at the time.
 
AMY GOODMAN: Now, even before she meets all these legendary figures, she had a child. She had a baby. Colin, you are her baby’s baby. You are Guy Johnson’s son, Colin. Talk about Maya Angelou as a young, single mother, the decisions she made, the stories you told in your family, how she ended up having your dad, Guy.
 
COLIN JOHNSON: Well, how and the first question are a little different. I would say that her as a young woman, I think she had this power and feeling inside of her that she had some work that was unaccomplished, but balancing that with being a mother. And I think that she was torn with the same decision that her mother and her parents actually made, as well, as to stay on a daily basis and be that parent or go off and live your life.
 
AMY GOODMAN: She was a teenage mom, right?
 
COLIN JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly, 17.
 
AMY GOODMAN: And she made a decision to have this baby alone.
 
COLIN JOHNSON: Right. I don’t know I would phrase it that way. I would say that her pride and the way that she was raised allowed her to walk out of a door with a young child in tow and brave the world. And I don’t know that it was a decision that was thought out from the very beginning to have the child. I think it was a series of events that just—as the rest of her life has played out, it’s just like, "I decided to have sex with this man, and a few months later I found out I was pregnant, and now we have to deal with that." And her mother, my great-grandmother, was an amazingly powerful woman and basically said to her, "When you walk out of this door, don’t let anybody else let you feel like you haven’t been raised. You have been raised. You have all of the tools to go out and conquer the world," which is an amazing statement to make to a young woman who had really very little formal education, but self-taught and really self-driven internally. So, I think that I just would use different words in the description of it.
 
AMY GOODMAN: Before being world-renowned as the poet and writer that she was, she was an actress, she was a calypso singer. Let’s go to 1957. Can you place this for us?
 
BOB HERCULES: Yeah, she was a singer, and she had somewhere along the way picked up calypso singing. She started out as a dancer and then became a singer. And somebody at one point had said to her, "You know, if you could do this calypso act, you could get paid a lot more money, and you could be in some of the better clubs in San Francisco." And so she took that on and became a calypso singer. She ended up being in this movie, somewhat obscure movie, called Calypso Heat Wave, that came out in 1957. And, you know, her career was kind of launched as a performer. She had been playing in Vegas and doing all kinds of shows. And eventually she went to see a performance of Porgy and Bess in San Francisco. And one thing led to another, and they offered her a job of going on tour with Porgy and Bess, and she went all over the world with Porgy and Bess. It was amazing.
 
AMY GOODMAN: Now, setting up this clip from this little-known part of Maya Angelou’s life, the time when she was a calypso singer, interspersed with her singing and performing, you have Diahann Carroll speaking.
 
BOB HERCULES: Yes, one of our favorite lines. Maya comes out, and Diahann Carroll says—she describes her. And the last thing she says: "No shoes." And it always strikes me that was a detail that she caught.
 
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Maya Angelou.
 
ANNOUNCER: Maya Angelou!
 
DIAHANN CARROLL: I talked some friends of mine into going to this little club, late ’50s. And what I remember is Maya making her entrance—very tall, very grand, no shoes.
 
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Mo and Joe run the candy store,
Tellin’ fortunes behind the door,
The cops grabbed Mo, and as Joe ran out...
 
DIAHANN CARROLL: That she was an original is certainly an understatement.
 
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Brother Mo, he began to shout,
Run Joe, hey the man’s at the door,
Run Joe, the man, he won’t let me go...
 
DON MARTIN: She was exact and refined with her movements. She was limbs. I mean, she was a beautiful Giacometti sculpture.
 
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, ohh...
 
DON MARTIN: At the time, that was the trend in music—Afro-Caribbean, calypso. And Maya was known as "Miss Calypso."
 
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] All is busy in the marketplace,
Makes me dizzy in the marketplace,
’Tis a wonder to me to constantly see
All that happens in the marketplace.
That flower girl has an innocent face,
The most well read in the marketplace.
She’s a voodoo girl from dusk ’til dawn,
So cast a spell just for fun.
 
DON MARTIN: The voice was no great voice, but she knew how to use it.
 
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] ’Tis a wonder to me to constantly see
All that happens in the marketplace.
 
AMY GOODMAN: She was dancing, she was singing, and she was not wearing shoes, Rita.
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: No, I think there was this allure, even if you look at the liner notes. In the liner notes, they say that she came from some Caribbean country, because they wanted to just promote her as this dancer at this time. And that was important, and it moved her to another place, she—as she toured with the State Department. And this was huge. Many people had not been out of the country. But to be in a group of African Americans that then tour from—she was in—she was not only in France, where she met James Baldwin for the first time, but she was also in some of the African—
 
BOB HERCULES: She toured in Egypt—
 
RITA COBURN WHACK: In Egypt.
 
BOB HERCULES: —and all over the Mideast, in places that, you know, in those times, Americans would not have normally gone to. So it was a very interesting experience for her. And she picked up languages and picked up the culture, and it broadened her horizons tremendously.
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