The incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou is a legendary thought-provoking icon, the kind of which this world will sadly never see replicated again. Her unique style and mesmerizing poise has shaped much of today's literature, and her influence is impossible to ignore. Yet despite this fact, there's much about Dr. Angelou's life that even her biggest fans likely knew nothing about — until now. The new documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, in some theaters now, sheds light on the untold stories of the writer's activism and deep personal life, revealing many truths about the artist that so many people never before knew.
"I did some research about her and found out that no one had done a documentary about her," said Bob Hercules, who directed the film alongside Rita Coburn Whack, during a private screening in Beverly Hills on Nov. 10 that Bustle attended. "Many people wanted to do this film, but we came together at the right time to make this documentary, with the approval of Dr. Angelou."
In the film, Hercules and Whack resurrect the highs and lows of the phenomenal life of the phenomenal woman. Weaving in and out of her upbringing in Stamps, Arkansas, the documentary explores the freedom Angelou gave people through her writing in her formative years and shows the breadth of her influence in truly eye-opening ways.
"I was terribly hurt in this town, and vastly loved," Dr. Angelou recalls in the documentary, over footage of her in rural Stamps. Back in her hometown, she recalls the rape that changed her life and reveals the huge effect it had on her. After her rapist was found dead, Dr. Angelou fell mute for five years of her childhood and instead read every book in her school library, using the books to expand her imagination and help her cope.
Yet while many people are familiar with Angelou's work as a writer and reader, the footage of the icon singing and acting will open the eyes of many who had no idea she was skilled in those areas. Her role in the original off-Broadway play, The Blacks, a role many know very little about, is highlighted through commentary by her then-castmates Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr. One of the most surprising scenes in the doc shows Angelou dancing, her tall, slim figure standing out in a gentlemen's club. "I danced at a strip club," she states in the film. "I didn't do what most of the girls did, where they danced around and [threw] something off. I just danced around a little bit and that worked for me." Clearly, Angelou was a woman of multiple layers, and it's delightful to see them all revealed on-screen.
A rich selection of archival footage and photographs illuminate Angelou's political engagement with Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during her journey for civil rights in the states and Ghana, something her family is glad to see shown on-screen. "This documentary is a huge step forward to show who my grandmother really was. How many people know that she wrote over 30 books? These are the things many people really didn't know in depth. [So] it's a proud movement forward," said Angelou's grandson Collin Johnson at the screening.
After five years of digging up archives, interviewing people like former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones and Dr. Angelou's son, Guy Johnson, the filmmakers reached the end of the filming process, but not until after the passing of Dr. Angelou. "One of our greatest regrets is she never got to see any type of cut of the documentary. Losing her was traumatic, but the fact that she didn't get to see it gnaws at me," said Hercules.
Still I Rise shows a raw honesty of who Dr. Angelou really was, embracing all parts of her personal history —good and bad — in order to paint a vibrant picture of the writer, and that's a beauty within itself.
Images: American Masters Pictures, Wayne Miller/ARC Entertainment