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The life and lessons of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, in American Masters' Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. (Photo by OWN via PBS)

Confession: I know Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But I did not know much about Maya Angelou.

I do now, thanks to Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, airing tonight on PBS as part of American Masters.

Angelou’s mother’s boyfriend raped her at age seven, and as she said in one interview, “So I stopped speaking, for five years. In those five years, I read every book in the black school library. When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say.”

She said that in writing, yes, but her expression and work didn’t end there. Maya Angelou was also a dancer, actor, and civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The documentary film, co-directed by Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, uses Maya Angelou’s words—from four exclusive interviews conducted prior to her death, but also archival interviews and other sources—to take us through her extraordinary life.

Having her voice so available was possible in part because, of her seven memoirs, five had audiobooks recorded by Angelou. Between her own writing and speaking, there was a lot of material.

“We were fortunate,” Whack told me. “It was really our blessing to have somebody that spanned that time period and was so well-documented, was also self-documented, and was a voice that you don’t hear. You don’t hear a black woman’s perspective on history internationally or nationally. And because she participated in it, she could speak to that.”

Research for the documentary began in 2011, and before its PBS debut tonight, the film has been touring festivals. It was funded through American Masters, grants from several organizations, and even a Kickstarter campaign that raised $153,000—and was necessary to complete it, including paying for the rights to footage included in the documentary.

Hercules told me that assembling all of that information—without a narrator—required “hundreds of hours, just trying to figure that out.” Whack said. “There was a wealth of [material] to go through.”

That material spans decades but is also immediately relevant.

“We need to take you another time period to allow you to see who we are, and I think there’s something very rich about that. And I think that’s something that documentary filmmakers are really frustrated historians because we want you see what was happening—and we want to see it better,” she added. “If you can see who you are and what happened, maybe more people would do things like vote.”

Bob Hercules also hopes Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise will affect its viewers.

“People hopefully will take away from it inspiration—to take on the challenges of our day just she did in her day. She overcame so many obstacles: the Jim Crow south, a woman in a man’s world, vicious racism, raising a child when she was in near poverty, just the challenges of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. And she overcame all that with a sense of grace,” he said. “There’s so much acrimony, there’s so much division, we’re in our bubbles, none of us are speaking to each other. Her message was the opposite of that: We must be together. We’re more alike than we are different, as she always said.”