maya-angelouPublished in 1978, as part of a larger volume titled And Still I Rise, Dr Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ is a powerful declaration of strength in the face of cruelty, success and determination in the face of bigoted discouragement, and absolute defiance against racism and sexism. It is a work which remains relevant today – Nelson Mandela recited the poem at his 1994 inauguration, and Nicki Minaj’s recitation at a Los Angeles event late last year brings Angelou’s words to a new generation.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, by documentarians Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, evokes the core of the poem. While it would be difficult to produce a weak documentary from a subject so rich, this is a particularly accomplished composition of archival footage, voice recordings, conversations with Angelou, and contemporary interviews with friends and colleagues. There are slow moments, uninspired sepia-toned retellings of Angelou’s childhood that seem like dislocating asides, but these are thankfully few. Other imaginings of Angelou’s earlier years are told with clips from Fielder Cook’s 1979 adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which generate a more intimate connection to her life and work. Overall, the film traces the contours of Angelou’s personal and professional life through periods of pleasure and moments of extraordinary bitterness, and even when Angelou is not on screen, her presence is keenly felt. Amongst other interviewees, such valuable commentators as Oprah, Common, Alfre Woodard, her son Guy Johnson, and more, speak as though remembering a true friend, a large figure in their lives. For the most part, especially because the filmmakers began this project before Angelou’s death in May 2014, this documentary is invigorated by the same legacy of honour and verve that Angelou brought to her own life.

Born in 1928 in the American South, Angelou and her brother Bailey were raised in the shackles of segregation. After suffering sexual abuse and rape inflicted by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then murdered by a mob, Angelou became an elective mute, withdrawing her voice for five years. She read extensively, and the practice of observing the world, of searching beyond surfaces, became embedded in her nature. Clearly of sharp mind already, this period cemented Angelou’s determination to face the world’s horrors with language – ‘When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say.’ She encouraged similar ambition in others. Archival footage from 1982, included in the film, shows an invigorated Angelou speaking in her hometown of Stamps, Arkansas. Before a room of captivated schoolchildren and teachers, she points to her brain and declares, ‘This machine will do anything for you, anything.’

As with any documentary project, the filmmakers can only cover so much of their subject, and while they offer strong material, those with further knowledge may find some omissions troubling. For instance, the film does not spend time on her time as a prostitute and madam while a struggling young mother, or her determined struggle to become the first female African-American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Rather, Hercules and Coburn Whack cover Angelou’s more well-known pursuits as an incredible wordsmith, a poet, and an icon at the helm of civil rights. She shared her life with many of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers; her close friends included James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and the activist and Harlem bookseller Lewis H. Michaux. Angelou declares that she was the first black woman member of the Director’s Guild of America, and the film mentions other accolades and achievements of a far-reaching influence: she wrote the poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Maya Angelou at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

As an author, Angelou defined a new genre, and her books became touchstones of literature and African American history. Her first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is shaped by, and shapes, both personal and wider history, giving life to the essential pasts of cultural figures in much the same way as this genre of documentary. For Diahann Carroll, actress and performer who worked frequently with Angelou, its resonance was so strong that it became ‘another Bible’. But Carroll makes it clear that she admired the woman, too, not only the book. By 1969, Angelou had already been an established stage performer, calypso dancer, journalist and editor, and activist. Quoting Mary Helen Washington, Hilton Als suggests that at that time, black women, their identities relegated to the margins of experience, could only talk about their personal lives in private. A vivid storyteller with a biting eloquence, Angelou went beyond the privacy of the dinner table, beyond the classroom, and used her stories to raise understanding about the woman’s perspective, and to draw awareness to institutionalised prejudices.

She had scars, many inflicted close to home, but lived through them.

The documentary visits later moments of Angelou’s artistic success, such as her roles as an actor in the miniseries Roots (1979) and director of Down in the Delta (1998), highlighting their political relevance to declarations of African American suffering. And in spite of (or in light of) her own struggle, there is an uplifting sense of grace and warmth to Angelou. Some specifics are eclipsed by the grander narrative, but as the title reminds us, the film is primarily about a woman’s rise – its neglecting to cover some darker parts of her life is not necessarily a flaw. It’s hard to imagine anyone exploring this darkness with more savage insight than Angelou herself, and it is indeed Angelou’s voice that offers the most affecting introduction to her childhood. Over a tableau of Stamps, she evokes its lasting resonance: ‘I was terribly hurt in this town, and vastly loved.’ This paradox is a devastating thread that ties the places of her life together. She had scars, many inflicted close to home, but lived through them. She used her scars for her strength.

At its core, the purpose of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is not to offer an encyclopedic entry of a person, but to compose a portrait of a phenomenal woman’s effect on others. I wept many times, as did audience members around me; the shedding of tears not a response to the grief of her death, but to the beautiful achievements of her life. As the end credits roll, Angelou’s voice recites the titular poem; at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, this voice stopped people in their tracks as they began to leave the cinema. Audience members crowded at the door, ready to leave for the next film, but found themselves drawn back into the cinema, captivated by Angelou’s oratory power, and her mammoth spirit. This documentary, I hope, will keep the memory of Angelou alive, and give even more life to the gift of her influence. And above all, its message is clear – no matter the volume of stories about Angelou, the most rewarding way into her life is to read, watch, or listen to her own work.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise has its Australian premiere at the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival in Melbourne on Saturday 7 May.