“She was big, and she had the voice of God,” President Clinton recounts in Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a WNET American Masters film presentation airing February 21 on PBS. “[The poem] is like an eternal gift to America, and it will read well over 100 years from now.”
Twenty-five years later, as that same diverse America protests a new administration sorely lacking in inclusiveness, the documentary, co-directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, serves as a posthumous gift from Angelou — a teenage prostitute who became an entertainer, scholar, and one of the most important literary figures of our time. In the film, we get an account of Angelou’s life both in public and private from, among others, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, Common, and John Singleton, along with Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson.
“She said to me that people her age should be ashamed to die because they hadn't taught younger people enough before they were leaving the planet,” said Coburn Whack during a press conference at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena last month. Angelou died at age 86 on May 28, 2014. “I helped her with her Twitter account, and I think her last tweet about two days before [she died] was something to the effect of, ‘I'm on my way to my ascent.’"
I spoke with the filmmakers following the press conference on the morning of celebrations honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
MONIQUE N. MATTHEWS: It’s interesting that today is Dr. King’s birthday and February 21, the date of this film’s premiere, is the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death — two significant dates for people who meant a great deal to Dr. Angelou.
BOB HERCULES: That’s right.
RITA COBURN WHACK: I’m glad about those dates. This time last year, we were on our way to the Sundance Film Festival, and here it is a year later. And, you’re right, Martin Luther King’s death and Maya Angelou's commitment to him and to his ideas — as she says in the film — “Was like cool water on a parched desert.”
She worked for Dr. King, became close to him and close to his family. She actually moved back to the States from Ghana at the behest of Malcolm X. He wanted her to work for his new organization. And, shortly after she moved, he was assassinated. She didn’t get to work for him for that long, but she loved him when they met. They formed an immediate bond. And at that time, they were diametrically opposed as to how to get to the same place. She was a bridge — and, in her thought, she continued to be a bridge of nonviolence, of peace, and by any means necessary.
So, I think these dates are more than fortuitous. It’s almost as if she, God, and everyone else is going: “Okay, we’re going to make it on that day. And, on that date. And, why don’t you all do something about that!”
What influenced your overall direction?
BH: We followed her story. As documentary filmmakers, we’ve often said, “You follow the story. You don’t know where the story is going to go.” Obviously, we did our research, but you do go with her as the primary narrator of the film. There were some things that she was able to really go deep into. Her involvement in The Blacks [a scathing socio-political stage production on race in the United States by Jean Genet] was a story that wasn’t well known. But she went into it, and so did Lou Gossett and the other people we interviewed — so that dictated what stories we would tell, and, frankly, other stories that we wouldn’t have time to tell.
Were there any challenges?
RCW: There were a lot of challenges. Each scene, and it breaks down into scenes no matter what you do, has to start and end on her because it’s her story. People would say: “What happened to Guy?” or “What happened to her brother Bailey?” We couldn’t go off on a tangent and tell those stories because we had to tell her story.
We also needed to tell you the story that you already knew because you couldn’t leave out the inauguration. But we also chose to tell you something that you didn’t know, such as the fact that President Clinton picked her because he grew up 20 miles from where Angelou was raised in Stamps, Arkansas. We needed to take you into different levels of what you already knew, and then we needed to tell you things that you didn’t know.
BH: The primary challenge, as it is with most of these films, is fundraising. It’s difficult to raise money for documentaries, even for a film of this caliber, with a subject this iconic. It was an expensive film for us to make simply because she was so well documented, which was wonderful. There’s so much to see of her story, but that can be expensive.
RCW: We also had to set up the time period. There was the archival material, which was hers, but then we needed the Ford car driving down the road to recreate scenes of the tall, black woman who might have looked like her during the time when she was a prostitute, in order for you to feel the distress of it.
We wanted you to stay within her voice. That was another challenge, because she passed before we started editing. We toyed around with having a voice-alike, but we just couldn’t do that, because nobody could be her. That made us go deeper into the archives. When we found her in the BBC clip — saying, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary that you encounter defeat, so that you know who you are” — we said, “That’s the show. That goes at the top.” That pulled it together.
Was there anything you wanted to include but didn’t?
BH: One of the segments that we cut out near the end was about her teaching, but it’s an extra [on the website and social media]. She often said that teaching was the most important thing that she gave to the world. She taught at Wake Forest University for over 20 years. She saw her role not only as a writer. What’s her phrase?
RCW: “I thought I was a writer, and I found out I was a teacher who writes.”
Speaking of her role as a teacher: watching the film and seeing her interact with the young lady who made the mistake of calling Dr. Angelou by her first name at a talk show, I was reminded of the time Dr. Angelou did a signing at UCLA during my undergraduate years. When it was my turn to get my book signed, she asked, without looking up, to whom she should autograph the book. I said, “Write it to Big Mo.” She looked up at me and asked skeptically, “Who’s Big Mo?” I started to cower, because everyone was now looking at me. “I’m Big Mo. That’s my rap name.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me down, “What is the name that your parents gave you?” I said, “Monique.” She nodded, satisfied. “Monique, that’s a lovely name. I’m going to write this to Monique because in five years you won’t know who Big Mo is.” Big Mo was immortalized by Anna Deavere Smith in her play Fires in the Mirror. I never had the opportunity to tell her that. Have you ever had a similar experience with her?
RCW: I’m going to remember a time that I was working for Oprah Radio [a Sirius XM Satellite Radio show], and I came to her home in Harlem. She looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Oh, there’s something wrong. You’re down in the mouth,” which is a Southern phrase that my mother also used. I kept insisting there was nothing wrong, and she kept encouraging me to say something. When I finally started to say something, she said, “Be quiet.” I said, “But you asked.” And she said, “No, hush. Here’s what’s wrong: You’re ungrateful. That’s what your problem is. You have a husband and children that love you. You’re sitting here with me. You’re making money. You have your whole life ahead of you. You are new as morning. You’re ungrateful. That’s what’s wrong with you.” I said, “Yes, ma’am. Thank you!”
It made me think: “Why should I complain about anything when I have so many things?” She was trying to let me see that. That’s the way she lived her life. She knew a lot had happened to her, but she got to the point where she saw herself free, in the sense that everything had informed who she would be next. She accepted that, and you couldn’t take the good of it if you didn’t take the bad.
BH: I did not know Dr. Angelou as well as Rita, but what I take away from her story is the ability to overcome these huge obstacles. It’s a lesson to all of us, especially at this time. We’re always going to face obstacles, and that’s the theme of the film: And still I rise. The film coming out at this time in history is provident. It’s meant to come out now, because we need that voice of reason, of inclusion, of embracing diversity, and all the things that she stood for.
Dr. Angelou is known to have been a mentor (to Oprah Winfrey, Louis Gossett, and others), and she was mentored by Mrs. Bertha Flowers and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, among others. How do you think that they influenced her path and who she became?
RCW: Here’s a Dorothy Height story: Before Dr. Angelou was offered the job for SCLC …
BH: As the Northern Coordinator …
RCW: She was invited to a luncheon at a club and the elite black women were there. Dorothy Height was one of them. Dr. Angelou came in with her afro, and the women around the table were like, “You know you’re not assimilating.”
She left that meeting and got a call from Dorothy Height, who invited her back. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she wasn’t going to change her look. She thought all of them were going to be there, but it was a one-on-one. Dr. Height told her, “You’re the best person for this position with Martin Luther King, because you are who you are, and I will help you.”
Dorothy Height was a person she said “Yes, ma’am” to. Dorothy Height would come, and Dr. Angelou would dress for breakfast with her gloves and her hat. If she said to Maya Angelou, “I need you to write this.” Dr. Angelou would say, “When do you need it by?” Dorothy Height would say, “Next week.” And Dr. Angelou would say, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll go to work now.” Dorothy Height could pull a string with her any day of the week. She looked up to Dorothy Height from the time she brought her into the Civil Rights Movement until Height died.
How do you think your film will resonate with people who may only know Dr. Angelou in a new Trump administration era and beyond?
RCW: We were in Park City [for Sundance Film Festival] and went to Salt Lake City, Utah. We showed the film at a high school, and there was a young black man, 16 years old, who came up to us and said, “Thank you for this. I never heard of her before today.” That population exists. He would be that person that you’re talking about, and it played well with him. It played well because of her honesty. For her to say, “At 18, I was a prostitute,” and to come back from that and not live in the past — a lot of people live 90 percent of their lives in the past. She kept reinventing herself. Younger people respond to that, because that’s what they have to do thanks to social media and how fast the world is moving. You have to keep reinventing yourself, and you have to keep getting up from defeat.
BH: There’s one more thing — and I think Rita alluded to it — Maya Angelou always said that courage was the most important virtue because you couldn’t do anything else if you didn’t have the courage. We did not want to make a film that was a hagiography. It was a real film, because she was courageous enough to tell her story. She was regretful about how she raised Guy, because she didn’t have any money, and was always traveling, working and working. That’s important for people to see — young people especially. She raised a son with no father, and it was tough.
In the press conference, you mentioned Dr. Angelou’s last tweet: “I’m on my way to my ascent.” What does that mean in terms of her view of life? What charge does that present to us as we live our lives?
BH: That’s quite a question.
RCW: In the Christian faith, heaven is a possibility, or a probability if you believe. You also believe, in your fantasy world, that maybe Christ will come back and maybe you won’t have to die. But she was aware of her mortality.
She decided to get rid of 58 — which is what she called her home in Harlem — and settle in Winston-Salem. She was on a cane at that time. She wanted me to see a particular shop in Old Winston-Salem. When we were at the door, she said, “The cookies over there you have to get.” She took a step, and she said to me, “I can’t go on. You go over there and get them.” I didn’t want to leave her. But if you looked at her, feeling sorry for her, she would look at you and say, “Put your face up. I’m going from strength to strength.”
That’s something we all need to come to. She taught us that lesson.