If Black History Month is a time to tell stories of lives too long overlooked or overshadowed, then Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise tells some damn fine stories—even if they’re ones that are very familiar.
By the time she died, Angelou had been a singer, dancer, civil rights organizer, journalist, writer, director, and touring speaker. She worked with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration, and was championed by Oprah.
This colourful life and its seeming iconic stature sometimes overwhelm Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack’s documentary. It opens like a tribute (“Maya Angelou, 1928-2014”) and its first archival footage clip—the famous tanks stopping in Tiananmen Square—is a stretch, as if trying to link Angelou to liberation-movements beyond the United States. But then come the stories.
There’s her Alabama small-town childhood memory of Uncle Willie hidden in a crate of potatoes and onions whenever the Klan rode in (or he might be accused of raping a white girl). Her recollection of being raped at the age of seven by her mother’s boyfriend, who was so badly beaten soon after Maya told her brother that she didn’t speak for five years, certain her words had killed the man. Her casual reminiscence about losing her virginity at 16 in San Francisco: “Is that all there is? And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘OK. Bye.’”
There and elsewhere—as with an ’80s spoken-word performance about a black woman’s practiced “survival” laughter—Angelou’s a fantastic storyteller. Yet Hercules and Whack dedicate so much time to her life and relationships, they don’t get to her writing until the final 45 minutes (even then it’s mostly about her famous debut memoir). It’s doubtful any big-name documentary about a black male activist and writer would focus so much on his life, children, and marriages. (Compare the just-released documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which imaginatively continues a book James Baldwin—a friend of Angelou—never finished).
From her civil rights-era work to her African travels, Angelou’s made a prism here for the politicized black-American experience in the second half of the 20th century. And yet there are curious cracks in this documentary’s subject-turned-monument: her startling flash of combativeness when she chastises a girl in a studio-audience for disrespectfully calling her “Maya” to preface her question; this creative, reflective writer’s inflexible stance on the n-word, denying it can be reclaimed by African-Americans because it can only be fixed, frozen—it’s “vulgar … poison.”
By the end, though, the film’s all too admiring. Angelou’s anecdote about reprimanding Tupac Shakur on-set for swearing seems to glint with that “sanctimoniousness” in her work that critic Hilton Als noted. Her inauguration poem’s played up like a championship moment in a sports biopic. The interview parade of stars and celebrities is capped by the Clintons—Hillary notes of Angelou at the inauguration (a remark all the more cringing given her recent election-defeat): “It was a phenomenal woman at a moment in history when she belonged.”
Too intent to cement her as an idol, And Still I Rise just won’t let stories tell the whole picture.
3 stars out of 5