Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

Maya Angelou and Still I Rise by Lanre Bakare at The Guardian

In the opening moments of Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, Hillary Clinton says it would be sad if the poet, thinker, and performer were only to be remembered for one thing, alluding to her classic work "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." But this documentary – put together by Bob Hercules and first-time film-maker Rita Coburn Whack, shows the varied, creative and often brutal back story that created one of America’s finest writers.

Starting with her upbringing in Stamps, Arkansas, the directors use Angelou’s unmistakably raspy narration to weave a story of abuse and neglect. Her mother leaves home, and a seven-year-old Angelou is raped by her mother’s new boyfriend when they are reunited in St Louis. After she tells people about the rape, her attacker is arrested and released before his corpse is found: seemingly, he has been beaten to death. It’s a moment that profoundly affects Angelou, who not only has to recover from the assault but also the fact that she now believes her words were responsible for his death. She decides not to speak for five years. The thought of Angelou being mute is shocking, not least because the film is so much better thanks to her voice. She could read a shopping list and make it thrilling.

Angelou finds her voice again when learning poetry – she reads every book in the black library. It’s from here we learn about her developing into a performer. She moves to San Francisco and begins a career onstage; she also gives birth to her son Guy Johnson (there’s an amazing moment when she describes losing her virginity and how underwhelming she found the whole process). Johnson steals the show. His accounts of their life together (and apart) are heartbreaking and tinged with anger. He talks about the time American entertainer Pearl Bailey stopped his mother from being her understudy because she considered her too ugly. It was a decision that meant they’d be separated again because Angelou would have to go back on the road in a touring company. There’s a mix of fury and pride as he tells the story of Bailey getting a lifetime achievement award and choosing Angelou as the person who should give it to her. His mother did it happily, without mentioning the pain she had caused.

It’s their relationship that drives the action again as Angelou becomes involved in the civil rights movement, spending time with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as operating on the front lines of protest despite the dangers. Throughout everything she is outspoken and defiant, refusing to be cowed by past mistakes or indiscretions. The only times she is withdrawn is when discussing her son’s accident in Ghana, during which he broke his neck and almost died.

What Coburn Whack and Hercules do so well is capture Angelou’s power and elegance, which seems to have increased as she got older. An important figure throughout the 60s, in the 70s and 80s she developed into a maternal figure for black America, ushering in the period of Oprah and black female empowerment. It’s that longevity and creative drive that the film celebrates. No hagiography, it paints a portrait of a life lived to the full and dedicated to being true to oneself.