"She Was Like an Aunt" - 'Still I Rise' Co-Directors Discuss Working with Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou in the 1970s (Photo: Getty Images)

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After five years planning, shooting and editing, Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules had their documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, play at Sundance last year. Now their biography of Maya Angelou’s life will be broadcast as part of the American Masters series this month on PBS. We caught up with both filmmakers, separately, over the phone to talk about their collaboration with each other and with Maya Angelou herself. (Edited for length and clarity).

Before you made the documentary, had you previously met or worked with Maya Angelou?

Rita Coburn Whack: From 2006-2010 I worked with Oprah Radio in Chicago. At that particular time Maya Angelou was one of my radio hosts. I would spend three to four days a month with her in either her Winston-Salem home, her New York Harlem brownstone, or on the road with her because she traveled on a bus like a country music singer. That's how she got from place to place for her speaking engagements.

Bob Hercules: In 1999 I was working on a film for a non-profit organization, Prevent Child Abuse America. We decided to see if we could get Maya Angelou to narrate the film since we knew it was a cause dear to her heart because she had been victim of sexual abuse. She immediately agreed to do it so I flew down to Winston-Salem to meet her at a studio. We recorded the voiceover and then spent some time talking with her.

Rita Coburn Whack
Rita Coburn Whack

What did Maya Angelou mean to you before you met her?

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RCW: I lived in a little town outside of Chicago. We had chickens on the block. The library was in the basement of the village hall and across from it was the jail. You'd have to be a very brave little girl to run in there and run as fast as you could to get a book. Pippi Longstocking and Encyclopedia Brown -- those were the books that were available to me. One day I saw I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and a black woman was on the back cover. I hadn't seen that before. That's how precious that book was to me. It was the first book by a black woman that I saw. I grabbed that book and I ran all the way home.

BH: I remember when I read Caged Bird for the first time, it was a long time ago, and I don't know if it was in a college class, but I remember for me as a white privileged middle class male, growing up in a town that had hardly any African Americans, it was a profound experience for me to read that book because of her description of the viciousness of racism at the time of the Jim Crow south, growing up in Arkansas, and the town that was divided. One side was white and one side was black. The way she conveyed it was different from other books I had read about the same subject. For one thing there was no bitterness in her voice. It was done with a sense of grace and it was done with a sense of poetry.

The second thing was many years later at my office on the day of Bill Clinton's inauguration, January of 1993, I shut down my office and we just watched. And I knew Maya Angelou was reading the poem. That was part of my interest. And it was majestic to hear her read and watching it live and just feeling the excitement of it and the power of it and the sweep of it.

Bob Hercules
Bob Hercules

What was the difference between the person you imagined her to be and who she actually was when you finally met her?

RCW: I felt like she was an Aunt. I felt like she was somebody that I was related to. I also felt that when I looked at her from afar, she could put on airs. What I found when I was closer to her, that she had reinvented herself in the way that black women of a certain era do. By that I mean, right after slavery, people would laugh at the names that black women would take on. They would call themselves Princess this or Queen that. What they didn't understand is historically the reason why women did that is they didn't want to be called "Hey girl" and they didn't want to be called out of their name. It was a self esteem builder at a time when self esteem was in short supply.

What I found when I met her was that she held herself with what I would call a certain comportment. That means that no matter what your past is, as you reinvent yourself, it's not about assimilating. It's about a certain amount of respect. When I saw her personally she had evolved to the point that that was who she was.

As filmmakers, what did you want to do make this biography unique?

BH: Number one, we realized that there would be no need for a narrator, that Maya Angelou would be essentially the narrator of the film. You couldn't do any better than that. It'd be a folly to have a narrator. That was something Rita and I instantly agreed upon. We were lucky enough to have a chance to interview her about three times before she passed.

The story was so complicated and so huge that what we settled upon as strategy was that we would tell a bunch of stories at greater length and then we would skip over other parts of her life, not that they weren't of value either, but you have to make decisions at some point. And also I didn't want to get into a position of being shallow. For example, the play The Blacks by Jean Genet, that is a very unknown play now. It's almost lost in history, but it was very important at the time. It ran on Broadway for nearly five years, and it was a very important play politically. It awakened some political ideas in her, so it was crucial.

Maya Angelou in 1970
Maya Angelou in 1970 (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

How did you convince her to participate in the documentary?

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RCW: I asked Maya Angelou, "Would you do a documentary?" The first thing she said was, "You know I don't need another thing." I didn't say a word because you saw what happened with that young woman in the film who called her “Maya.” Let me tell you something, she would always take you to town. It was her way. She would teach you a lesson if you would ask for it. Right? So I didn't say anything because what I learned was you did better to be quiet and to listen. I waited and she said, "Do you know what you're asking?" And I thought about it and I thought about it more later. I was asking somebody to go through their life again. She had written seven autobiographical memoirs and I'm asking you to go through your life at the end of your life, to dig all of that up. You have to trust that I can tell it. Since I didn't I didn't say anything, she looked at me and said, "Now if you're going to take this, you better take it all the way." Which meant, you better do a good job. All I was trying to do was do the best job I could because when she looked at me and said, "You better take it all the way." That was the point.

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