The Dallas Examiner
– Film Review –
“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeat so we can know who the hell we are. What can we overcome? What makes us stumble and fall and now miraculously rise and go on?” Dr. Maya Angelou speaks at the beginning of American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a PBS documentary of her life and extraordinary achievements.
Filmed just before her death in 2014, the two-hour inspirational documentary is packed with interviews from Angelou; her son, Guy Johnson; and her grandson, Colin Johnson; as well as friends and those who have worked with her, including Louis Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson. The three legendary performers have history that goes back decades. Angelou, Tyson and Gossett co-starred in the 1977 historic film Roots. Angelou and Gossett also co-starred in the 1961 off-Broadway performance of The Blacks.
Early in the film, Angelou reads her poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as she begins talking about her life as a child when she was still known as Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her narrative almost mirrors the dramatic and sometimes devastating scenes from her autobiography, also titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She also reads a few excerpts from the book and adds information that was not included in her memoir.
As the film continues, clips from Angelou’s early years reveal her entry into the world of entertainment as a dancer, which later evolved into a role as a barefoot calypso singer. It goes on to show the evolution of a performer whose fought against the odds as she went on to become a world-renowned performer and civil rights icon.
The mood of the film becomes somber as she recalls her biggest regret in life – leaving her son behind in order to make her living.
But even more heartbreaking is the interview with her son. As tears streams down his face, he speaks with a great deal of love and appreciation for his mother’s sacrifices and accomplishments. He also offers bitter tales of those who had mistreated his mother.
Angelou later discusses the Civil Rights Movement and the first time she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a church in New York.
“His idea of non-violence was absolutely what I had been waiting for,” Angelou recalled. “I had lived around so much violence, and been myself violated, and when Rev. King came and said, ‘We can change the world with nonviolence,’ it was like pouring water on a parched desert. I needed that and I was ready for it.”
She goes on to explain how that moment led her to be involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She soon met King and they formed a friendship. Afterward, she became more involved in civil rights in American and Africa – and convinced her son to join her efforts.
The film shows interesting clips of her move to Ghana, Africa, and meeting Malcolm X there. Angelou and Johnson recall their discussions with Malcolm X and revelations about his character. They also recall their heartbreak after learning about the deaths of the two iconic heroes. While Johnson appeared to be most effected by Malcolm X’s death in 1965, Angelou was so devastated by King’s death in 1968 – on her birthday – she stopped talking once again until her friend, James Baldwin, insisted she get dressed and go with him. The moments that followed led her to become an author.
The discussions of her intimate relationships are some of the most revealing because they expose her vulnerabilities as well as her strength as a woman that most didn’t see when she was performing or giving a speech.
One of the most magnificent scenes from the film is a clip of her speaking during the 1993 inauguration of former president Bill Clinton, as she reads her poem On the Pulse of Morning. It is powerful and timeless.
It is also interesting to see a bit of the behind the scenes clips from the 1998 production of Down in the Delta as Angelou directed Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Mary Alice, Ester Rolle, Wesley Snipes and other award-winning actors.
Other scenes include clips from Poetic Justice in which Janet Jackson’s character reads poems throughout the movie that turned out to be Angelou’s work, her as a guest speaker talking about the day she met Tupac Shakur, and a personal discussion with Dave Chappell after he left his TV show abruptly.
As the film draws to its conclusion, Tyson tearfully recalls her last performance that Angelou attended despite being ill. It ends with brief scenes of Angelou’s funeral.
The film is set to air Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. on PBS. Overall, the film is phenomenal. It’s not just historic, but empowering. It’s a must-see for all ages – males and females of every generation, race and national origin.