Before she became, Dr. Maya Angelou…she was just Maya; a bright, wide-eyed girl that endured many seasons of pain and the excitement of life. She was able to use her experiences to express ideas and concepts that would transform her environment and the world around her. This is the story of a remarkable, triumphant woman, who created what she wanted the conditions to be, which in turn, helped her navigate through life. The documentary, “Still I Rise” explains her humbled beginnings, love for literature, artistry, activism, and adventure through exploring the African diaspora.
Over a 50 year time span, Angelou published several notable works including seven biographies, books of assays, and several poems. One of these books reflects on her childhood and young adult life from her first memories to seventeen years of age. She has also been involved with and spearheaded several projects involving Broadway plays, television, and film. She was a singer, actress, poet, director, teacher, activist and much more. Angelou understood how to be a mover and a shaker; everything she touched blossomed into a unique perspective and revelation. She maneuvered through life, mostly unafraid and unapologetic. This was how she came to be one of the most influential women in history.
The film shows several interviews with family and friends, which reveals intricate details of her life. These include Secretary Hillary Clinton, Former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, John Singleton, Lou Gossett, Jr, and Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson. “My father was a doorman in Los Angeles, and mother was a bright and courageous woman from St. Louis. My parents came together and fell in love, but it was short-lived. My grandmother was a child of a former slave,” explains Maya Angelou. Marguerite Annie Johnson (nicknamed Maya) and her brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., lived with their mother and father in St. Louis for about four years. After a “tumultuous marriage”, the children were sent to their grandmother’s in Stamps, Arkansas. Then a few years later, they were abruptly moved back to St. Louis to live with their mother Vivian Baxter. It was there that Maya Angelou was raped and abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the tender age of eight. Maya told her brother about the abuse and later that week the man was found beaten and kicked to death. She did not speak for five years after that, because she figured “that her words had the power to kill a man.”
It was during this time that she observed the world through listening and seeing. She and her brother, once again were moved back to her grandmother’s in hopes to change the circumstances of the horrible events of the past. Maya began to read and develop her love for reading with the help of a teacher, Ms. Bertha Flowers. She read authors like Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and a few black female authors. Memorizing and interpreting bible stories also helped Angelou reference life situations and make strong connections through metaphor and imagery. Maya’s early memories were chronicled into a memoir called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)”.
When Maya was a teenager she was pregnant with her son, Guy Johnson. There was never any mutual desire for marriage between her and the young man she was involved with. As her son, Guy, was growing up, Maya Angelou would take odd jobs, some of them in the sex industry and others were auditions for plays, and eventually film and television.
She ended up studying Calypso music at a club called The Purple Onion. Then, she toured with the production of “Porgy and Bess” in Europe and on Broadway from 1954 to 1955. She debuted in the film, “The Calypso Heat” Wave in 1957. Angelou got the opportunity to be an understudy to Pearl Bailey in “Hello Dolly”. Bailey said that she did not want “that ugly negro woman performing with her”. Ironically, later Pearl Bailey was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award and asked Maya Angelou to give it to her. Pearl Bailey never uttered a word towards Angelou.
Maya Angelou performed Jean Genet’s play called- The Blacks-Le Negres-1960.” Actors included Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr,Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. “The Theater of the Absurd” explains Lou Gossett, Jr. Maya Angelou played “Queen Elizabeth, the lily white queen ensconced”. The play embellished upon two separate levels of society… white on top and black at the bottom. In the play, the blacks rose up and killed the whites and took their place on the stage. Many whites were ashamed, blacks were embarrassed and haunted. The reaction of some were: fainting, one broke their leg running out of theater, one man had a heart attack.
Angelou created the musical revue “Cabaret for Freedom” bringing celebrities together for civil rights. She discussed civil rights with Martin Luther King and took on an important role in the South Christian Leadership Conference. She formed a close bond and looked up to Malcolm X. She was unable to solidify any unification on activism projects because of Malcolm’s death in 1966. Later, when Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, Maya Angelou slipped into a state of mutism again. It took the help of her friend/mentor, award-winning author, James Baldwin to bring her out of personal hellish-depression she fell into. Baldwin encouraged her to write and “I know Why the Caged Bird” emerged after much goading by Judy and Jules Feiffer at Random House.
“My mother had not had the good fortune of knowing real love,” states her son, Guy Johnson. Angelou was married 3 times. Later, she had an affair with musician, B. B. King, which was also short lived and he left Angelou emotionally shaken.
In 1977, Angelou made an appearance in the min-series “Roots” playing Kunta Kinte’s (Lemar Burton) grandmother.Dr. Angelou revisited Stamps, Arkansas in 1982 for reflection. It had been 30 years since she had come back. She could “smell the greens and cured pork along with pressed down with old fears”.
While acting in John Singleton’s film “Poetic Justice”, Maya Angelou comforted a confused and hostile, young Tupac Shakur. She was shocked at the vulgarity in which he spoke. She wiped his tears and spoke quietly with him; sharing the stories of African-American history. “You are precious…..the best we have,” explained Angelou. John Singleton urges that even after she has passed she continues to be entrenched in the “deep, deep, roots of our African-American Culture”. Dr. Angelou collaborated on a project with the artist, Common, also. She regretted his use of the “N” word and stated it openly. She explained, “If a thing is poison and you pour it into Bavarian crystal it is still poison,” scolded Angelou.
Dr. Angelou has garnered several awards. Many of her literary works received critical acclaim over the years. On Inauguration Day (Jan 22,1993), President Bill Clinton chose Maya Angelou to speak. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” was eloquently delivered to the nation. No poet had spoken at an inauguration since President John F. Kennedy asked Robert Frost in 1961. Maya Angelou experienced being a 1st time an African American New York Times Best-Seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. She was the first black woman to be inducted into the Directors Guild of America. She directed movies like her autobiography “I know why the Caged Bird Sings”, “Down in the Delta”, “How to Make an American Quilt”, etc.
Co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack did a magnificent job with”Still I Rise”, illustrating Dr. Maya Angelou’s impact on the fabric of American culture. She was an integral part of changing history through her activism, literature, and her ability to influence others to think beyond boundaries…. allowing people to “stretch the limits of their imagination”. In her poems, she spoke of many topics including but not limited to: life…unearthing freedom, light and darkness, cool breezes, the dawn, bright skies, rhythm, Calypso, African culture, humanity, etc.
Courage, wisdom, knowledge, and truth became badges of honor, which she wore proudly. Dr. Maya Angelou was an ever-evolving spirit that challenged mainstream ideals and attempted to defy the impossible. She had an insatiable hunger and drive to be fresh and creative; to discover her love of literature and African culture/heritage. She uncovered weaknesses and used them to tell stories that people could relate to. Dr. Angelou was unafraid, vibrant, aggressively honest, assertive, ground breaking, free, introspective, knowing the rhythm and beat of the times. By confronting demons in her life, she was able to share her life as an open book.
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