American Masters: ‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise’ Provides Hope

You might be surprised to hear that the first African American man to win a supporting actor Oscar, Louis Gossett Jr, feels we have the right man in the White House. Less surprising is the that documentary he’s featured in, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” has a decidedly different feeling after the presidential elections. The documentary premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast on PBS “American Masters” Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m. (Check local listings).

While prior to the 2016 election results, this documentary which includes lengthy interviews with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, could have been interpreted as a fond remembrance of a woman who published seven autobiographies and was a dancer, actor and activist and much, much more. In light of Donald J. Trump’s victory, the documentary now is more of a call to action.

Angelou (1928-2014) and Gossett (1936) were in the original cast of Jean Genet’s 1958 play “The Blacks: A Clown Show” (Les Nègres, clownerie) when it opened off-Broadway in 1961. The cast also included James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne (1922-2007), Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge (1933-1976) and Charles Gordone (1925-1995). As Gossett recalls, the play was so shocking in its exposure of racism and air of threat so vivid that one audience member sitting in the first row had a heart attack.  In today’s atmosphere, Gossett thinks that a revival of the Theater of the Absurd play wouldn’t be out of place.

Of that time, Gossett said, “I grew up with some pretty brilliant people.” In the play, Angelou was the White Queen and she at six-foot tall, she was a commanding presence. Yet Gossett feels, “Maya is symbolic of getting rid of that poison” of racism and prejudice. “She helped steer me in that way to go into a darkness and listen.”

Later, Gossett and Angelou worked together with Tyson in the 1977 miniseries “Roots.” Tyson was the mother, Binta, of Kunta Kinte, Angelou played Nyo Boto, a midwife and Gossett played the fellow slave who helps the enslaved Kunta, the Fiddler.

Despite acting in the groundbreaking series, Angelou is best known as a writer and a poet.

Her connection to the Clintons began when the Clintons first met—both had read her 1969  “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Decades later, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Angelou became the first poet to make a recitation since Robert Frost (for John F. Kennedy in 1961) and her gift to the USA on that day was “On the Pulse of Morning.”

Imagine watching this documentary if Hillary Clinton had been elected the first female president? Directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack couldn’t have predicted the political climate change when they started making the documentary five years ago. Hercules noted, “It certainly speaks to people in a whole new way,” adding,  “We showed the film the day after the election. It was significantly a different feeling at the Q&A after the screening and even during the film. The story resonates so strongly, even more so now. It’s about inclusion; it’s about diversity. It’s against the coarsening of society which is what’s been happening lately.”

Whack commented, “Her voice is a voice of civility. It’s a voice of reconciliation and it’s also a voice of protest, a voice of questioning a system. Basically the civil rights movement questioned a well in place system in this country.”

Hercules and Whack also couldn’t have predicted that the PBS presentation and streaming would be at the same time as the new Oscar-nominated documentary on James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was in theaters. Baldwin does figure in this documentary, the directors, who at the time of the interview hadn’t seen the new documentary, used footage from an previous PBS presentation on Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket.” Baldwin and Angelou were friends and both had broken the limitations of their hometowns by reading extensively in their library and, eventually as adults, traveling at a time when few African Americans had the opportunity to go abroad.

Angelou knew many significant people and lived such a large life, it was impossible to fit it all in. Hercules said,  “The main thing we cut out right at the end when we were trying to get it down for broadcast was a whole segment about her teaching career. She was at Wake Forest University for almost 25 years. She saw herself as a teacher. She spoke at thousands of colleges events.” Those excerpts will be available on the American Masters website.

Besides her teaching, Whack noted, that Angelou really loved country music but there was nowhere to put it in. Angelou also loved to cook and a little bit of this got in, and Whack feels that “in the end I believe we gave enough that you would see things you expected and you would see the unexpected.”

There was a point when Angelou wasn’t doing very well so they weren’t able to do some things. Whack noted, they had wanted to see “what it would be like to take her back to Africa, what it would be like for her to be in Ghana now and what it would be like to be in Egypt now.” There is a touching segment in the documentary when Angelou goes back to her hometown and the reality and her memory are out of sync.

Whack noted, “The humanizing of her was important for us to do. At the end, she was just a person who had done so much work it should inspire us.”

Hercules added, “It was always an emotional experience to watch the film with people, but her voice is needed more than ever and she’s not around. Hopefully the film in some way will help.”

The documentary begins and is built around with a quote from Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

That comment is echoed in what her former co-star’s feels about the current political landscape.  Gossett believes that in “the final conclusion, our mutual destiny depends upon us getting rid of those poisons (of prejudice), because of those poisons we got the right man in the White House to see what those poisons are.” Gossett added, “We need to fuse as a people. Drop all of this automatic superiority, Trump not withstanding, KKK not withstanding, or we are going to perish.”

Angelou wrote about rising up to the challenge of prejudice and hardship in her poem “Still I Rise.” Angelou rose from a traumatic childhood experience, from prejudice against her as both being black and being a woman. So too, perhaps the US can still rise despite the chaos of these last few weeks. 

“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” is an American Masters presentation on PBS and after it airs, the full documentary is available for streaming on the American Masters webpage. The documentary is available on DVD and DigitalHD now from PBS Distribution.

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