As a ten-year-old living outside of Chicago, Rita Coburn-Whack would run to town hall across from the jail, past the local drunk and down into the basement. That’s where the library was located. She’d read what was available to her—the tales of Pippi Longstocking and Encyclopedia Brown—up until she spotted a dusty copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Drawn to the bird on its cover, the young girl flipped the book over to inspect the back. Dr. Maya Angelou, a Black woman, looked back at her. Coburn-Whack had never seen that before, and fascinated, she returned home with it. When finished, she was as confused as she was inspired. Back then, the racism, poverty, and fear in Angelou’s story were not easy for a young girl to truly own, let alone talk openly about.
Years later, when Coburn-Whack’s life became political, Angelou’s memoir of “truths” were all she could talk about.
Coburn-Whack, along with her co-director and co-producer Bob Hercules, has spent the last four years making Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, the first feature documentary about Angelou’s life, who died in 2014 at age 86. The film traces the icon’s story through never-before-seen footage, archival media and interviews with Angelou, her friends and family.
When Coburn-Whack asked Angelou to do a documentary chronicling her life, Angelou countered: “Do you know what you’re asking? Do you know how big my story is? Can you wrap your arms around it?” These are questions she’s still trying to answer.
Having worked in radio and television for 30 years, Coburn-Whack could not have predicted how she would cross paths with Angelou over the years: in a recording studio, at a Chicago State University event, and many times at Angelou’s own dining room table. It was this longstanding trust that finally convinced Angelou to make the film. But their relationship started far before either ever met the other.
“She’s why I’m a storyteller,” Coburn-Whack explains. “I’m drawn to the stories of women, particularly Black women, because they haven’t been told well enough, long enough, or true enough.” Coburn-Whack identifies as a modern-day griot, a storyteller in the West African tradition. Reading Caged Bird prompted the filmmaker to ask at a young age what was missing from the books she was reading. “We need to tell better stories than that because we live by our stories,” she says. “I don’t see enough Native American people, I don’t see enough Asian people, I don’t see enough Black people, and I don’t see enough women.”
So how does a documentarian do Maya Angelou’s story justice? You chase the story until it chases you, says Coburn-Whack. She describes a West African belief that states the world operates on three different planes: “The living, like you and me, the living dead like Maya Angelou, and the living gone. You are only dead and gone when no one on Earth speaks your name again. I hope this documentary keeps her a part of our living dead.”
Indeed, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise immortalizes Angelou’s life in a way that has never been documented before. Scenes of Angelou and her brother hiding their uncle in a bin, throwing onions and potatoes on top to conceal him because the Ku Klux Klan was riding that night, or the tragedy of a young Angelou being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When the man was found murdered several days later, she did not speak for five years.
“My 7-year-old logic told me that my voice had killed a man,” Angelou says in the film. She reads: “The act of rape is the matter of the needle giving because the camel cannot. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.”
Angelou would find her voice again, but it was not without a price.
She went on to perform in strip clubs, eventually working her way to New York, where she toured with a performance company around the world. In the city, she met Black writers like John Killens and Langston Hughes, who invited her to join their Harlem Writer’s Guild. In Paris, she met the prolific James Baldwin for the first time. He would become her dear friend. The documentary also details her work with civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“She told history with every step and I don’t think she thought she was doing it when she was doing it,” says Coburn-Whack. “She was just knocking one punch after another that life gave her. She kept going. You learn a lot from living through that.”
It was these collective life experiences that gave Angelou a grit that Coburn-Whack became well acquainted with. In one of their interviews, the filmmaker showed up late. After a few stern remarks from Maya Angelou, the younger woman would never be late again. “She was tough,” Coburn-Whack says. “She was as warm as she was tough, she was as generous as she was tough. But she was tough. And I like that in women.”
In Chicago, at a screening of the documentary, a woman walked out of the theater and told Coburn-Whack that she had grown from watching it. Growth is exactly what Coburn-Whack hopes people take away from the film, particularly given the current political climate. “It’s really a frightening time in our country,” she says. “The freedom that we believed in, that we have strived for is being called into question.”
Dr. Angelou believed that people are more alike than they are unalike, and that in order to mobilize, people must actively want to be better.
“If we are the sum total of what we see, and we know that everything really can be worked to our good, Maya Angelou sets an example of that for me,” Coburn-Whack concludes. “And she’s not the only one because I see that in the people around me.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise premieres tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. You can also tune in to the film stream starting tomorrow at pbs.org/americanmasters . The film is available on DVD and DigitalHD now via PBS Distribution.