PBS has broadcast “And Still I Rise,” a remarkable documentary for its American Masters series about Maya Angelou, who seemed to encompass so much of African American life and art. Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, a fitting moment of triumph considering Angelou remained mute for much of her early life. She is best known for her poignant memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969).
Maureen Ryan’s review of the PBS documentary is accurate and compelling:
“Towering over the documentary’s lively lineup of contributors is Angelou herself. She passed away in 2014, but directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack use well-chosen excerpts from archival interviews and TV appearances throughout ‘And Still I Rise.’ Given that Angelou is a terrific storyteller, with great timing and an uncanny ability to describe a resonant detail, those segments are often the best parts of the film.”
Angelou had many jobs, from dancer to the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco in the early 1940s. I now wonder if my father or grandfather may have taken Angelou’s trolley at some point. Of course, it’s Angelou’s art that is important. Here is Ryan:
“The first half of ‘And Still I Rise,’ which focuses on Angelou’s early years and the start of her career as an author, is richer and more eye-opening than the second half, which hops around her later decades a bit more superficially. And yet it’s difficult not to have sympathy for anyone trying to capture Angelou’s life and inspirations in a two-hour film; given her boundless energies and wide-ranging path, it comes close to being an impossible task.”
Ryan is correct. Angelou befriended celebrated writers like James Baldwin, and two great African American leaders, though very different, Martin Luther King Jr. and the fiery Malcolm X, both assassinated. Angelou also performed in some landmark productions, including “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s revolutionary play about revolutionaries, “The Blacks.” Some of the actors became famous, including James Earl Jones. Many New York audience members felt intimidated.
Idaho State University presented “The Blacks” in the 1970s with local actors Kim Purce, Rosalyn Jackson and Russell Sanders. If it was a major event in New York, and it proved just as provocative in Pocatello.
As Ryan points out, “There are so many excellent tales in ‘And Still I Rise’….When a commentator says Angelou’s parties were ‘one hell of a good time,’ it’s easy to believe.”
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” still sells and captures an amazing and often tragic early life in clear evocative prose. On some level, Maya Angelou as a writer and performer seems to connect to all of us, white or black.
It’s nice to imagine that my father held me on his lap while Maya Angelou was driving that San Francisco streetcar.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.