What many people know about Maya Angelou stems from her high-profile life as an intellectual, poet, memoirist and activist. For those less familiar with her life, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” should serve as a bracing introduction, and as an inducement to dive into her prose, poetry and speeches.
The experiences that went into the creation of her celebrated autobiographies are covered in this solidly crafted American Masters documentary. But what the documentary does best is give a sense of the wide sweep of her immensely varied and fascinating life. Even those who know Angelou’s biography fairly well are likely to appreciate the insights of her collaborators, colleagues, friends and family members, who talk vividly about the flowering of her gifts in many different social and artistic arenas.
Towering over the documentary’s lively lineup of contributors is Angelou herself. She passed away in 2014, but directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack use well-chosen excerpts from archival interviews and TV appearances throughout “And Still I Rise.” Given that Angelou is a terrific storyteller, with great timing and an uncanny ability to describe a resonant detail, those segments are often the best parts of the film.
The first half of “And Still I Rise,” which focuses on Angelou’s early years and the start of her career as an author, is richer and more eye-opening than the second half, which hops around her later decades a bit more superficially. And yet it’s difficult not to have sympathy for anyone trying to capture Angelou’s life and inspirations in a two-hour film; given her boundless energies and wide-ranging path, it comes close to being an impossible task.
“And Still I Rise” quickly but concisely covers her years in Stamps, Ark., her early relationships and traumas, and the connections she made as a member of the touring company of “Porgy and Bess.” Long before she began writing books in earnest, Angelou was a singer, dancer and activist who became an important figure in the Civil Rights movement. Her early decades are littered with painful rejections and soul-searing setbacks, but “And Still I Rise” perceptively describes Angelou’s persistence and boundless curiosity.
It’s hard to believe Angelou experienced so many high and low points before 1960 — i.e., before she became friends with Malcolm X, spent years living in Egypt and Ghana, made television shows and movies, and, of course, published many celebrated books.
There are so many excellent tales in “And Still I Rise”: It would be wrong to give away the surprising endings of stories involving Pearl Bailey, B.B. King and a famous rapper that Angelou once met on a movie set. Early on, a fellow performer describes how, as a dancer, Angelou moved like a mobile “Giacometti sculpture.” Her son tells thrilling and harrowing tales of participating in civil rights marches with her. When a commentator says Angelou’s parties were “one hell of a good time,” it’s easy to believe.
There are excerpts of conversations between Angelou and Dave Chappelle, and between the author and one of her best friends, James Baldwin, and it’s hard not to wish for more excerpts from those exchanges, which touch on matters of race, romance, oppression and courage. Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson speak eloquently about the strong connections they had with Angelou’s work and with the woman herself. But given that there are so many black women writers and academics whose careers have been influenced by Angelou’s writing and poetry, the general lack of those kinds of voices, aside from a few moments of commentary from Nikki Giovanni, feels like a missed opportunity. At a certain point, remarks from Common begin to feel a bit extraneous, while contextualizing input from a writer and essayist like Roxane Gay would have been most welcome.
Midway through the film, we learn about Angelou’s eventual turn toward a full-time writing career and about her creative process, which involved legal pads, hotels and a need for solitude. Valerie Simpson of the R&B duo Ashford and Simpson tells illuminating stories about working on musical projects with Angelou, and Alfre Woodard talks about being directed by Angelou in the feature film “Down in the Delta,” which was shot in the South. At lunch, Angelou would tell stories about the history of the places in which the crew was working. “It was like we were on an archeological dig on sacred ground,” Woodard recalls.
The scope and sweep of Angelou’s life provide its own multi-layered history of America. She recalls being a child in Stamps and hiding her uncle when “the boys” — members of the local Ku Klux Klan — came to a relative’s store. Bill Clinton, who grew up nearby, talks about recognizing the Arkansas that Angelou described in her autobiographies, but of course, in some ways, they might well have grown up on different planets. The two met long before she recited a poem at his 1993 inauguration, but on the way to that podium, she arguably endured a more interesting, and certainly a more arduous, path.