My first introduction to Dr. Maya Angelou was in middle school. While watching the film adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I absorbed the images of poorer black people in the deeply segregated South. Before seeing Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, I merely understood her to be a celebrated author, a poet, and an eloquent speaker with a steady, luscious voice. But after watching the new PBS documentary, I walked away understanding who Dr. Angelou as a person: her sensuality, her talents, her travels, her tragedies, and her triumphs.
The documentary, which premieres on PBS tonight as part of the network's Black History Month programming, guides viewers from Angelou's childhood through her journey to motherhood—the former of which many people are familiar with due to the book and film adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Through rare archival footage and photographs, the documentary delves into more personal details of Angelou's world, including her marriages and her notable close friends like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Still I Rise also touches on her activism and her artistic talents as an entertainer. By the time the film is over, it has become clear that Angelou lived multiple lives in one lifetime.
The documentary unpacks key plot points of each of those lives, but not in a way that merely lists her many accomplishments. Instead, it provides a well-rounded, in-depth depiction of Angelou. The film, which originally was supposed to be 90 minutes long, spends about two hours humanizing Angelou, showing everything from her travels to her struggles as a single mother and a victim of sexual abuse.
"Pulling it all together was a challenge," said director Rita Coburn Whack. "I wanted more than anything for people to see her as a whole person—her frailties, her strengths—so that you knew that this is something you could do." Still, as Whack and co-director Bob Hercules narrowed down the footage into a cohesive narrative, they noted they weren't able to include everything, like small details such as Angelou's love of country music.
"She was not trying to be Maya Angelou, she was trying to survive," Whack said. "It was important to humanize her… You're not just defined by being nominated for the National Book Award or getting a Grammy, but you're also defined by what hurts and hits us."
While researching and digging for new details of Angelou's life, Whack sifted through several thousand photographs given to her by Angelou's family, some of which were sorted and cataloged with the help of Howard University. Other filmmakers had approached Angelou about doing a documentary, but she declined, not wanting to collaborate with filmmakers she didn't know well.
But Hercules and Whack, who had both had professional relationships with the celebrated author—and in Whack's case, got to know the family—developed a friendship that became critical for making a film that did Angelou's story justice. Whack, a former producer on Angelou's talk show on Oprah Radio, spent a great deal of time with Angelou, often sitting with her as she talked or drafted books. Hercules said he first came across Angelou's writing in while in college and later got the chance to work with her on a separate project.
And Still I Rise follows the recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro and airs on the anniversary of Malcolm X's assassination. And though Whack and Hercules were unaware of Raoul Peck's movie about James Baldwin—nor did they intentionally choose this release date—it's divine coincidence that these all coincide. The film mentions Angelou's friendship with Baldwin and Malcolm X—as well as Martin Luther King Jr.—each of whom influenced Angelou's writing and activism. The inclusion of these profound figures provides even more historical context for Angelou's efforts as a protester and coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"She felt that [Baldwin] was a brother to her," said Whack, elaborating on Angelou's relationship with the author. "He was small like her brother, Bailey. And he took charge of things, and he made her feel protected. There were all sorts of stories about making her feel protected."
It's details like that that help shape And Still I Rise as the documentary unearths several surprises along Angelou's journey to fame. Another notable anecdote explains that despite spending time with soon-to-be great American writers and influencers—and experimenting with writing short stories and poems—Angelou initially did not want to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Although the filmmakers had conducted extensive research of the Angelou's work and life, there were still some surprises and interesting perspectives uncovered during the interviews they conducted. While producing the film, which features interviews with Hillary and Bill Clinton, Hercules learned that it was Clinton's familiarity with Angelou's hometown of Stamps, Arkansas, that played a role in his decision to have her write the famous presidential inauguration poem.
Outside of the interesting, and often intimate details, the overarching theme of the documentary, as its title implies, is perseverance in the face of many obstacles. According to Hercules, it is meant to be an inspiration to people who want to learn more about their history and who endure setbacks in their own lives. By really diving into Angelou's life—rather than just her accomplishments—it provides solace to viewers who have also lived through rough times but share similar aspirations—or who just need inspiration.
"What I always wondered was how she accomplished all these things," Hercules said. "I realized that she had for whatever reason instilled in her—maybe by her grandmother, maybe by having to go through the trials of racism, the trial of the rape—she had amazing courage: The courage to take on things that others wouldn't."
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise airs tonight on PBS.
Follow Tatiana Walk-Morris on Twitter.