Each with their own past experiences with Dr. Maya Angelou—the American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, most famous for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—documentary filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack came together by chance on Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, PBS’ American Masters doc about Angelou’s life and times.
Both intended to pursue their own separate doc projects on Angelou, with the knowledge that no documentary had ever been made about the prolific writer and artist, despite her tremendous historical significance. Meeting through a mutual friend, Hercules and Whack were united in their feeling and purpose from the very beginning.
Speaking with Deadline, the filmmakers describe their first interactions with Angelou, her initial reluctance to take part in the project and the collaboration that resulted, shortly before Maya Angelou passed away.
How did Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise come together?
Bob Hercules: Rita and I did not actually know each other when we both independently started to work on a project which eventually became the film. For myself, I was always a fan of her work. I remember reading her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and being blown away.
I had met Dr. Angelou years ago—she did a voice-over for a video I did for a nonprofit. It’s a long story, but one day, it just went through my mind, kind of musing about her. I did some research and discovered nobody had ever made a film about her, which seemed shocking to me.
At that point—around 2011—that’s when I started to do some research and develop an idea about a film for her. I had done two other films for American Masters, so I had a good relationship with them. I figured this would be a logical place for a film about Maya Angelou, and then by coincidence, Rita and I have a mutual friend—a woman who worked for Oprah’s company. One day, I was out to lunch with her and I mentioned that I was thinking about a film about Maya Angelou, and she said, “I know just the person you need to talk to—Rita Coburn Whack.”
Rita Coburn Whack: I had done a number of documentaries, but they were more about things like African Americans in architecture, African Americans in agriculture, the first black millionaires in the Chicago area, things like that. I happened to be working from 2006 to 2010 at Harpo [Productions], working for Oprah Radio. I had a number of hosts, and Maya Angelou was one.
I had interviewed her for Chicago Public Radio—I had known her work all my life—and when I started to work for her, Oprah’s generosity was, “Go down there and tape, because she’s almost 80. Take your recording equipment, so she won’t have to leave the house.” So I was ambidextrous, working in both radio and television.
When I got there, Dr. Angelou said, “Stay with me. You don’t have to take a hotel.” From 2006 to 2010, I would spend three to four days a month with her, either on the road, in her Harlem home, or Winston-Salem.
It was a really big blessing, and as I began to listen through radio, listen through my headset about the woman that I thought I knew from reading, I began to hear that she was a historical figure in a way that was very important to our culture. Black women had not written history books, so by her being born in 1928 Jim Crow South, all the things she had done meant that her story needed to be told.
Around 2010, the radio show ended. I knew then that I wanted to do a documentary on her life.
As the documentary illustrates, Dr. Angelou was initially reluctant even to write an autobiography of her life. How did you convince her to take part in a documentary project?
Whack: She said three things. The first was, “You know, I don’t need another thing.” I understood that. By then, she had done seven autobiographical memoirs, 34 or 35 books, so she didn’t need it.
I learned the best thing to do when she said something like that was just to be silent and wait, and then she said, “Do you know what you’re asking me?” What I understand that later to be is [several] things—to go over your life at the end of your life, when you’ve already done it; to work in this world which is not kind—think #OscarsSoWhite. Also, at the same time, it’s going to take you places that you won’t know.
The last thing she said was, “If you’re going to take it, take it all the way.” That was her way of granting permission, and I think it was only because we had worked together for four years by then—I had taken her to public radio; she trusted my journalism; and she had been burned by a number of journalists before.
I think that she needed to trust the journalism. She knew that we could work together well, and while she knew that I wasn’t going to pull any punches, she knew that her story was safe.
Think about this: People were not reading as much anymore. She was on Facebook—that was something that I had taught her to do, so she knew that there was a new crowd, and this was a new way to reach them.
What was it like working closely with Dr. Angelou?
Hercules: When Rita and I went down to her house for me to re-meet her, it was a good meeting. I had given her one of my films to watch—a film about Bill T. Jones that was on American Masters. I think she really enjoyed that film. She [knew] Bill personally, so that was also a factor.
I’ll never forget this moment though. I had my coat on, I was about ready to walk out the door of her house, and she said, “Oh, one other thing Mr. Hercules,” as she called everybody in their proper name. I said, “What’s that?” She said, “You better get moving.”
What I realized, and I think Rita also realized this, was that she was referring to her health. We realized that she was not in great shape, she was in a wheelchair, and I think she realized she was not going to live that much longer.
That was chilling for me to think about, because we realized, here we have this incredible story, and for the first time, she’s agreed to do a full documentary, and put her trust in both of us.
We really had to move fast to get some initial interviews. Luckily, we were able to do two other major interviews with her. We actually went on the road with her a little bit, as you saw in the film. We actually got a lot more filming in, but you never know in these kind of situations, so we’re just grateful that we got what we got from her, because she was phenomenal.
In all the years I’ve been making documentaries—which is my whole adult life, basically—I’d never interviewed anybody who was completely immersed in the story, psychically, almost physically. You’d ask her to go back in time, and she would go back there, and you could tell she was there in her mind.
Sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it was joyful, and sometimes it was hilarious, but whatever story she was telling, she was there. That was an amazing gift, to get those stories from her.
What was it like to be in the room with her when emotion did come up—with her son, Guy Johnson, as well?
Hercules: Besides Maya Angelou herself, Guy Johnson is clearly the most revealing and poignant person in the film. He’s really an amazing interview because I guess he has the Angelou gene, where he’s such an amazing storyteller, and his emotions are right below the surface. He’s riveting in the film. There’s no other way to describe it.
Whack: People who knew her—Cicely Tyson, Guy Johnson, Louis Gossett Jr.—these people were touched by her, and they felt a responsibility to tell the story as best they could, to honor the fact that they all knew she was sick, too. Guy Johnson has written two books in his own right—he’s a writer and a poet, and obviously, he lived with a woman who really reveled in expressing emotion.
Those factors not only helped us, but also, I really believe it was time to tell the story. As far as her going back there emotionally, it was cathartic for her. She told some things that she hadn’t told before, and she trusted the process.
The documentary examines so many of Angelou’s fascinating qualities—among them, her anger, her love of justice and her mutism, a recurring response to tragedy.
Hercules: One of the things I admire the most about her is she transcended her own anger. Of course, anybody who grew up in the Jim Crow South like that would have been angry. I would have been furious, but she had a way to channel that anger into a positive attitude.
She came through that with grace and with lessons to teach people. I think she saw that she was a teacher, somebody who would go on and help people forgive and reconcile those events in their lives, having been raped when she was seven years old, and being a woman in what was largely a white man’s world, at that point.
I think that’s one of the great lessons of the film and of her life, is that ability to come through those challenges, and rise above, as we borrow from her famous poem, “Still I Rise.” She was able to do that, and really live it.
Whack: I’ll be honest—I don’t know how you can ever get over being raped at seven, particularly at a time when nobody rushed in with counselors, and things of that nature. As a writer myself, what I believe happened was most writers write from a desire to heal themselves, especially if you’re writing a memoir.
I think that Maya Angelou wrote her life to heal. She was so studied in words and in poetry that it ends up being a wonderful journey for all of us.
I think that she fought for civil rights unapologetically, not because she saw herself as being an activist, but because right in front of her were these things that her grandmother had taught her to fight against, in a quiet way. Her mother, being basically a gangster, had taught her by the osmosis of her being there that you better fight. Don’t let anybody push you over.
I think the pinnacle of her life was when [Martin Luther] King died, and Malcolm X died. She knew them both; she knew she had to step up. I think she thought, “I’ve got to fight.” That was a very potent time, and I don’t think she lost her anger completely. She had a saying that “Anger burns things clean.” I think that she knew that there are times when you should be angry.
If some people were not angry, black people in this country wouldn’t be free. Their kids wouldn’t go to the right schools, so there’s a point at which you have to use anger, not to just stand up, and not vote, and mouth off. You have to use anger to change things.
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