One of the foremost 20th-century shapers of an African-American literature and identity, the subject of “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise” wore many hats in a long, complicated life that has been given valedictory treatment in Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack’s documentary. Made over a four-year period (which enabled them to interview Angelou several times before her 2014 death at age 86), this solid if conventional PBS-style overview of her work and times should have a long shelf life among broadcasters and educators.
Taking a straightforward chronological approach, the pic commences with the celebrated author’s tumultuous early years, which were the focus of so much of her writing — most famously her poetical 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” her first and still most popular and influential book. (It also remains one of the books most frequently banned from U.S. schools for its frank depiction of child sexual abuse and racism.) When their parents’ stormy marriage ran aground, she and her brother Bailey were summarily shipped as mere toddlers to tiny Stamps, Ark. It was a devastating upheaval somewhat mitigated by the positive influence of their grandmother, whose entrepreneurial zeal managed to flourish despite the Depression.
Later shunted back to her mother, Angelou was raped by the latter’s then-boyfriend, and went mute for several years in the wake of his subsequent murder, which she blamed herself for. At last, the love of poetry instilled by relatives led her to speak again, in order to recite favorite passages. Deciding to find out if this sex business was all it was cracked up to be (her immediate verdict: no), she had her first mature such experience at age 16, and promptly got pregnant with her first and only child, Guy, whom she decided to raise without the involvement of his biological father.
Early work included variably “respectable” gigs as a dancer, which led to a successful calypso-singing nightclub act, then a global tour of “Porgy and Bess,” and an Off Broadway run of Jean Genet’s incendiary drama “The Blacks.” In later years she occasionally acted, notably taking roles in the “Roots” miniseries, John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” and Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “How to Make an American Quilt.” (She also wrote the first-ever produced screenplay by an African-American woman, for 1972’s Swedish-American drama “Georgia, Georgia,” and directed the 1998 drama “Down in the Delta” with Alfre Woodard — one of many talents to whom she acted as mentor, from Diahann Carroll to Tupac Shakur and Dave Chapelle.)
But her artistic path would never be the same after a dinner party at Jules and Judy Feiffer’s, where they were struck by her gift for storytelling. While she’d already made some efforts to pursue writing, they pushed her toward the commitment of a Random House publishing contract, which resulted in the international success of “Caged Bird.” A steady stream of additional memoirs, poetry collections and more ensued as she steadily rose to the status of a cultural icon in the coming decades. That role was capped by her being asked to create and recite a poem (“On the Pulse of Morning”) for fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration in 1993.
Angelou’s creative work was seldom separable from her outspoken politics, which manifested themselves in various ways even before the civil rights movement commenced in earnest. Related here are her close activist ties to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, her years living in Africa, and her key friendship with fellow scribe James Baldwin. While herself a figurehead for the speaking of uncomfortable truths, she nonetheless drew limits, condemning rappers and other young blacks for vulgarity, particularly in their epidemic co-opting of the “N-word.”
Her personal life is a little less clearly viewed here; Angelou herself was always a bit evasive on the matter of just how many husbands (legal or common-law) she had. (One ex reportedly said that the only companion she could truly make room for in her life was the written word.) If she ever had moments of difficult temperament or divisiveness, those go unnoted. The person here presumably closest to her, Guy, is perhaps the most line-towingly adulatory among interviewees.
Those talking heads include the Clintons, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones and other friends, admirers and collaborators, with myriad additional leading lights glimpsed in plentiful archival materials. The directors’ ennobling tone and middle-of-the-road packaging choices (including brief, silent re-enactments) are perhaps more familiar than inspired, but should help this thoroughly pro documentary reach the widest possible audience via arts-oriented and public broadcasters.