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From the opening scene, this documentary captivates. Viewers are confronted with a mash-up of black and white images and video clips from key moments in the African American Civil Rights Movement of the Twentieth Century – the lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till, who was murdered for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, the Greensboro sit-in of 1960, Rosa Parks riding a bus, President Obama and more. It is instantly powerful, and just as captivating for those who know little or nothing about the movement or Angelou.
The first documentary about Angelou, And Still I Rise covers the iconic African American’s life chronologically. Directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack seamlessly blend together filmed footage, rare photos and commentaries from those who had known Angelou to create a coherent and interesting film. What is best about this documentary is that Angelou herself is given the primary voice – having only passed away in 2014, Angelou was able to tell her life story first, so we get to hear it in her own words. In a way, this is Angelou’s departing gift to us all – for as those that knew her declare, she was not just a poet, an author, a singer or an actress, but a storyteller.
Angelou’s story beings as a young child in Los Angeles. When her parents separated, Angelou and her brother were put on a train and sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. “It was terrible rejection,” Angelou remembers, and goes on to describe life in the South as a young African American girl. Angelou’s childhood was dominated by abuse, both racial and sexual. The Ku Klux Klan made regular visits to the village, and at just seven years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Her attacker’s subsequent murder caused Angelou to become mute for five years, certain that her speaking out was the reason for his death. At sixteen, she became pregnant, and after giving birth to a son, Guy, Angelou began to dance and sing in bars to earn money.
Poetry was next on the cards, and Angelou’s literary journey saw her move to Harlem, the African American cultural hub of New York. During the fifties and sixties Angelou met many famous and influential African Americans, including poet Langston Hughes, author James Baldwin, and civil rights activists Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. Angelou describes her respect for both King and X, praising their different approaches to black equality. Angelou worked with the New York branch of King’s organisation the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and later became an advocate for X’s black nationalist rhetoric after meeting him in Ghana. “I loved him so much,” she recalls, recounting her devastation at his assassination in 1965 and King’s just three years later.
The year after King’s assassination, Angelou’s first autobiography was published. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the early years of Angelou’s life and went on to become hugely successful. She was the first female African American to write about her experiences in such a way, opening the door on ‘hidden’ issues like sexual abuse which many young black girls had experienced.
And Still I Rise covers the next decades of Angelou’s life, during which time she continued writing, acting and speaking, and also married and later divorced British author Paul de Feu. In 1993, Bill Clinton asked Angelou to write a poem for his presidential inauguration. Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, was “an eternal gift to America,” Clinton remarks. “And it’ll read well a hundred years from now.”
When Angelou died in 2014, she left a mark on everyone who had ever met her. It was not just the films she had starred in or directed, the poems and books she had written or the songs she had sung, but her demeanour, her personality and the vision she had shared. There was no one like her, this documentary asserts – and there won’t be another. As actress and friend of Angelou, Alfre Woodard says, “nobody is guna talk like she talked, and nobody is guna walk like she walked.” Do yourself a favour and watch this documentary so you can understand why.