Maya Angelou had a life lived on the world stage, a stage which featured her in all its forms. She grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, a little town in the South, in the most dire and difficult circumstances. Later, she ended up becoming one of the most prolific writers, speakers, activists, actors of our times.
The documentary Maya Angelou and I Still Rise (named after one of her works) is an exemplary tribute to a life that had seen everything. The film is made with accurate and emotional precision. The use of archival footage, interviews with Maya Angelou herself and then a range of people from Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, actors, artists, collaborators, close friends and one of the most important people in her life, her son, are weighed, but completely organic. Her son adds the emotional soul to the film’s narrative, as he re-lives multiple experiences of his mother’s life, a woman of extraordinary talent, grit, humour and an innate ability to liven up the darkest corners of the world.
The film dabbles in just about everything from this extraordinary life. It follows Maya Angelou’s life in chronology, but speaks to her exploits as a stage artist, then her political activism in Africa, her work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even a brief close friendship with Malcolm X. It was as if she was always at the forefront of these incredible changes that we saw happening in the 50s and 60s and also living her life through them.
Never once hesitant or ashamed for how she looked and who she was, Oprah Winfrey summarized what she learnt from her when she quoted her saying, “Don’t ever forget that you are enough, just as the Lord made you.” That was true of Maya Angelou for everyone she touched and anyone she made part of her.
I have a love/hate relationship with documentaries. I rarely like one and struggle to watch most of them. However, Maya Angelou and I Still Rise is one of my favourite movie experiences of this year. Obviously, the subject matter changes how you engage with a piece of cinema, but both filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack do an incredible job of steering this extremely complex story without overburdening it with their artistic add-ons.
After premiering to critical acclaim at Sundance, the film was part of the opening night at the Montreal International Black Film Festival, which runs until October 2, 2016.
For the full program and tickets, visit their website.