For at least the last thirty years, reading Maya Angelou’s serialized seven-part memoir is a rite of passage for young women across the globe. The first book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which documents Angelou’s childhood, is the most well-known. It is the ultimate story of the triumph of the human spirit.
Maya Angelou (seated, center) and the American Masters: Pictured (standing, left to right): Bob Hercules (co-director/producer), Rita Coburn Whack (co-director/producer) and Keith Walker (D.P.) (Courtesy photo)
As formidable as a seven-part memoir is, the upcoming PBS American Masters documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” makes clear that they cover merely the tip of the iceberg in the incredibly well-lived life of the author, Maya Angelou, who died in 2014. Overcoming a turbulent childhood marked by parental absence, rape, and the virulent racism of the American Deep South during the Jim Crow era, Angelou firmly grasped every opportunity that came anywhere close to her to overcome these trials and many more. The result was her improbable metamorphosis into one of the most celebrated, revered, and respected cultural icons in the world.
Rita Coburn Whack, the longtime producer of the “Maya Angelou Show” on Oprah Winfrey Radio was the only person who Angelou agreed to allow make a documentary based on her awe-inspiring life. “She had been approached by a number of people and the difference was, I think, because of the four years with her . She knew my work as a journalist and trusted me,” Coburn-Whack told the AFRO.
The PBS program features little-known tidbits about the cultural icon and personal recollections of some of her many friends and admirers such as rapper Common, filmmaker John Singleton, Bill and Hillary Clintons, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson and more.
Bob Hercules, veteran documentarian, co-produced the documentary. Hercules became a fan of Angelou after having read “Caged Bird” as a young man. He also worked with her on a public service short film years ago and had a relationship with American Masters, the long-running PBS series of which this upcoming documentary is the latest installment.
The making of the documentary, which premieres Feb. 21, was a five-year process that started in 2011 and from a technical perspective, its greatest gift was also its greatest challenge.
“There were private photographs that nobody had ever seen before. I think there were four thousand photographs to get to the three hundred and seventeen I think that are in the final film so it was really a massive effort to just comb through all those photographs to find the exact right photos,” Hercules told the AFRO.
There were also “something like a hundred hours of film and video footage of Dr. Maya Angelou over her career we had to go through hours and hours and hours of footage. It was an effort that surpasses anything else that I’ve ever done in my life really,” Hercules said.