The late Dr. Maya Angelou (1928–2014) stopped speaking for five years after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She silenced herself because her eight-year-old mind believed that her voice had killed a man. He had been found in a parking lot, stomped to death, presumably by her uncles. She questioned whether he would still be alive if it weren’t for her telling the truth. PBS’s recently aired documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise quells Angelou’s worries by showing some of America’s most influential people express how her audacity to speak vividly about both suffering and joy had kept them alive. President Bill Clinton, who grew up just twenty-five miles from Stamps, the Arkansas town that Angelou was raised in, once invited Angelou to his kitchen table during his tenure as the governor of that state. He asked her if she thought that he could be president. She told him not only that he could, but that he must. “She had the voice of God,” he says.
The documentary is narrated by Angelou’s enthralling voice, which feels like home: stern, sheltering, and soothing all at once. Co-directors Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules attempt to capture the essence and journey of this renaissance woman as she moves through the frames with fluency and deliberateness. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ ambitions fall flat as it spans everything from the traumas of Angelou’s childhood in Stamps to her memorial held at Riverside Church in Harlem. (Born on April 4, Angelou would have turned 89 this week.) As it races through the highlights of each decade, the movie at times skims past the nuances, the in-between moments, that make her journey extraordinary. Formally, the film offers a collage-like blend: interviews by those Angelou touched; rare photos chronicling her transformation from young girl Marguerite Johnson to Miss Calypso; images of her in the leading role as the white queen in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, alongside Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
The fullest beats occur when Angelou is captured in action, exemplifying the intangible power of her spirit, which is something that the interviewees fail to communicate. She was a mother, a memoirist, a lover, a sex worker, a pimp, a poet, a dancer, a gatherer of people, and an ambassador of hope. Angelou contributed to the development of this project before her death in 2014, but the film proves that it is difficult to recount the story of a memoirist onscreen when she has already told her story with precision and eloquence.
Meanwhile, the interviewees attempt to illustrate Angelou’s spirit to the viewer — how she was able to look into their eyes and see directly into their souls. We see Dave Chappelle sitting across a table from her, his eyes to the ground as he weeps, as she offers him words of assurance: that living in one’s truth is the triumph. (The scene presumably takes place after Chappelle decided to leave his multimillion-dollar contract with Comedy Central.)
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1970, it served as the catalyst for a new wave of activism and black feminism that digressed from the stereotypical narrative that black women are strong, emotionless beings who can endure brute suffering without consequence. Angelou rendered herself as a vulnerable, resilient, and flawed. In Still I Rise, Oprah expresses the importance of representation: “I never knew of another black girl who had been raped.” Angelou was never afraid to talk about things that are usually kept secret in an effort to defend blackness from narrow and vanquishing stereotypes. She was true first to herself as she explored the meaning of self through the written word, while seemingly never concerning herself with fame and its burdens.
Many of the struggles around race and politics that motivated Angelou nearly half a decade ago are just as relevant in modern America. Her recurring portraits of the country were illustrated through poetry, prose, and movement; rare footage in the documentary of Angelou cavorting with other pioneering black activists, including her dear friend James Baldwin, offer some much-needed joy — they laugh loudly and lean on one another like siblings. Guy Johnson, her only child, born when Angelou was seventeen, tells the story of when his mother welcomed Malcolm X into their home while living in Accra, Ghana, and cooked her acclaimed fried chicken for him as he talked about the movement he was leading in America. It was then that she decided to come back to Harlem to join the fight for equality, but shortly after she arrived, he was assassinated.
She didn’t leave her home for weeks, until James Baldwin knocked on her door and demanded that she pick herself up and write. Her pen eventually became her resistance: “When I reach for the pen to write, I have to scrape it across these scars.” Before she was Dr. Angelou, she was Miss Calypso, a Calypso singer who was a captivating performer with a story inside of her she refused to swallow.
The decision to present this film through PBS seems to be yet another act of defiance in a time where publicly funded networks are being threatened by the current administration. It seems that Dr. Angelou is reaching her hand out of the grave to shake us awake and into action, imploring us to bend and not break as alternative ways of resistance are being cultivated. With the release of this documentary only months after the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin depiction, I Am Not Your Negro, the voices of the past are frighteningly applicable to today. After spending five years in fear of the power of her voice as an abused child, Angelou instinctively recognized the real danger dwells in the silence. If these films tell us anything, it is that silence in times of corruption is more than just a personal choice: it is complicity.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, which first aired on PBS in February, is available to stream on the network’s website with the creation of an account. It can also currently be streamed via Google Play and YouTube.