Maya Angelou documentary to screen in Aspen
If You Go …
What: ‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,’ presented by the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Monday, July 25, 7 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Co-directors Rita Coburn-Whack and Bob Hercules will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion.
Who else could tell Maya Angelou’s life story other than the giant of American letters herself? Angelou shaped and reflected her times, from the late 1920s through this decade, in her autobiographical books and poetry.
In the new documentary, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” she continues telling her story — narrating the feature-length film herself.
“Maya Angelou” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and screens today as part of the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film’s New Views documentary series. Co-directors Rita Coburn-Whack and Bob Hercules will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion.
Coburn-Whack had produced Angelou’s show on Oprah Radio from 2006 to 2010. While getting to know the author during that period, Coburn-Whack didn’t contemplate making a documentary at first. But, as none had been done on Angelou previously, the filmmakers asked Angelou if she would sign on for one. By then in her mid-80s, Angelou — who died in 2014 — was uninhibited in talking about her life.
“Once she agreed, she didn’t hold back,” Coburn-Whack said in a phone interview. “When she told me she would do the documentary, she said, ‘If you’re going to take it, take it all the way.’”
The film runs mostly chronologically, from Angelou’s Arkansas childhood in the Jim Crow era through her early career as a nightclub calypso singer, into her deep involvement with the civil-rights movement and up through her influential decades as a writer and poet.
The co-directors spent more than four years on the film, beginning in 2011. They recorded several interviews with the poet before her 2014 death, traveled with Angelou on speaking tours and were with her when her portrait was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Angelou’s narration is woven together from interviews and audio-book recordings. Visually, the film offers a treasure trove of archival footage and photographs.
“We decided quickly there would be no need for a narrator when you have somebody who is as powerful and strong and articulate as Dr. Angelou,” Hercules said. “That was one of our first decisions.”
The filmmakers combed through more than 4,000 photographs before settling on the 310 that are included in the documentary. The film footage includes rarely seen clips of Angelou in her calypso-singing days.
“We’re proud that we found such great footage and were able to visualize her life in a way it hasn’t been before,” Hercules said.
The film aims to comprehensively capture Angelou’s life and times, recounting her iconic literary contributions like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and her poem for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, but also delves into less well-known parts of her life like her tour with the musical “Porgy and Bess” and her performance off Broadway in the groundbreaking “The Blacks.” We see her with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington, going to Ghana with Malcolm X, collaborating with James Baldwin and the Harlem Writers Guild.
The film comes during a fraught moment for race relations in the U.S., amid cellphone cameras capturing police abusing and killing black men, the response of the Black Lives Matter movement and the increased visibility of white supremacist groups during a volatile election year. Angelou’s life’s work, the filmmakers noted, has remained relevant through the decades.
“This is part of the black condition,” Coburn-Whack said. “The life that she lived is part of that.”
The filmmaker referred to incidents like the man found hanged in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park earlier this month in a suspected lynching as just one piece of evidence for the lack of racial progress since the days when Angelou was surrounded by government-sanctioned segregation in Arkansas, where her brother — the film recounts — witnessed a lynching. The film’s title — taken from Angelou’s 1978 book and poem of the same name — refers to the grace and strength with which she confronted racial oppression.
“I don’t think America has changed that much,” Coburn-Whack said. “We didn’t have to try (to make the film relevant to 2016). All we had to do was make the film. … I’m not sure there’s been enough change for this not to be relevant. Her life and her work is still relevant because, sadly, these things still exist.”
The film is slated for a limited theatrical release later this year and will be broadcast in February on the PBS series “American Masters.” Hercules and Coburn-Whack also are at work on an educational release for high schools and colleges and a tour of historically black colleges and universities.
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