Black History Month: Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise to Air on PBS

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By Janice Malone

NASHVILLE, TN — The new documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise premieres nationwide, February 21 at 7pm (Nashville) on WNPT, during Black History Month as part of the 31st season of THIRTEEN’s American Masters series. PBS Distribution will release the film on DVD the same day, with additional bonus features, and on Digital HD February 22.  American Masters – distinctly refers to the film as “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture,” Dr. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014) led a prolific life. As a singer, dancer, activist, poet and writer, she inspired generations with lyrical modern African-American thought that pushed boundaries. Best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House), she gave people the freedom to think about their history in a way they never had before.

This is the first feature documentary about Ms. Angelou’s life. With unprecedented access, filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack trace Dr. Angelou’s incredible journey, shedding light on the untold aspects of her life through never-before-seen footage, rare archival photographs and videos and her own words. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South and her early performing career. The documentary is filled with a plethora of celebrities ranging from Oprah, Common, Hillary Clinton and so many others.

The Tribune recently spoke with one of the projects filmmakers Rita Coburn Whack, about the making of And Still I Rise.

TRIBUNE:  What can viewers expect to see from this new PBS film? COBURN WHACK: “It’s a big story indeed. But viewers can expect to hear history from a black woman’s point of view, and not something that was in the history books. A lot of African American people, and particularly women, didn’t write the books and were left out…This life (Dr. Angelou’s), started in the South in 1928. It goes from a very Southern religious background that, was fear based in terms of the Ku Klux Klan, to the very lawlessness that was happening in Saint Louis in 1935.  We then take you to her tour in Europe with the state department in the 50’s, which not many people did black or white, during that time, traveled internationally.  By the 1960’s you see here in New York in a play call ‘The Blacks.’ The audience shows her life she in Egypt and in Ghana.  So, when you see her life, you realize that this woman’s life becomes international. Ms. Angelou reaches us all because she experienced all of us in a way that was well documented and self-documented by her with seven auto biographical memoirs…”

TRIBUNE:  This project is the first feature doc that’s been done about her life with unprecedented access. How did this all begin? COBURN WHACK: It really was an honor and a blessing. It all started when I read her earlier books when I was a child, about age 10 or so.  I remember running from the library, all the way home with the book in my hands.  I was so excited because I had never seen a picture of a black woman on the back cover of a book before, let alone a black woman with an afro! Years later worked with her via in radio and TV via HARPO Studios.  In time, I eventually got the opportunity to visit and spend time with Dr. Angelou at her home.  She didn’t want me to go to a hotel. So, for four years, I had an unprecedented access to her.  I was there three to four days a month as a guest in her home…The prominent people of the world who would call and visit her was astounding! After a while, I built up enough trust with her that she was comfortable to say, ‘You can tell my story. I believe you can tell it.’ It was a four-year process but I believe she agreed because she knew my work…”

TRIBUNE: Dr. Angelou was known to be an outstanding cook, who had written several cookbooks. I know you enjoyed her fantastic down home cooking. COBURN WHACK: “I must tell you, the food was fantastic because Dr. Angelou was an excellent, excellent cook! I believe she cooked to show love because it was one of the first things she did when she was trying to make it as a 16-year-old single mother. I’ll also tell you this that I found very curios. Dr. Angelou was old school.  She often slept with a gun under her pillow for protection. So, when I’d visit, I would often warn her by saying: ‘You know that I’ll be up tonight raiding the refrigerator for food later tonight.’ Cause I wanted her to know it was me raiding the refrigerator and not a burglar!” (she laughs).

TRIBUNE: What are some of your personal favorite poems from Dr. Angelou? COBURN WHACK: I love so many pieces of HER work. I particularly love the poem A Brave and Startling Truth, that was done for the United Nations. I love her many different works at different times in my life. I think her work is so large until it will always have something for us in our time. Just as President Clinton said about the inaugural poem (On the Pulse of Morning), ‘this poem is a gift to America.’ It will be read a century from now.”

Videos & more: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/maya-angelou-film/7533/

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