“From Strength to Strength”: Filmmakers Discuss the Life and Ascent of Maya Angelou in “And Still I Rise”

You’re ungrateful. She actually moved back to the States from Ghana at the behest of Malcolm X. Angelou was offered the job for SCLC …
BH: As the Northern Coordinator …
RCW: She was invited to a luncheon at a club and the elite black women were there. She wanted me to see a particular shop in Old Winston-Salem. RCW: I’m going to remember a time that I was working for Oprah Radio [a Sirius XM Satellite Radio show], and I came to her home in Harlem. It was an expensive film for us to make simply because she was so well documented, which was wonderful. RCW: There were a lot of challenges. King, became close to him and close to his family. When I finally started to say something, she said, “Be quiet.” I said, “But you asked.” And she said, “No, hush. We also needed to tell you the story that you already knew because you couldn’t leave out the inauguration. In the press conference, you mentioned Dr. RCW: Here’s a Dorothy Height story: Before Dr. Height, among others. When it was my turn to get my book signed, she asked, without looking up, to whom she should autograph the book. BH: The primary challenge, as it is with most of these films, is fundraising. That was another challenge, because she passed before we started editing. So, I think these dates are more than fortuitous. She raised a son with no father, and it was tough. She didn’t get to work for him for that long, but she loved him when they met. I never had the opportunity to tell her that. ¤
MONIQUE N. She was on a cane at that time. People would say: “What happened to Guy?” or “What happened to her brother Bailey?” We couldn’t go off on a tangent and tell those stories because we had to tell her story. Dorothy Height was one of them. You have your whole life ahead of you. BH: That’s quite a question. Younger people respond to that, because that’s what they have to do thanks to social media and how fast the world is moving. We wanted you to stay within her voice. BH: I did not know Dr. Angelou by her first name at a talk show, I was reminded of the time Dr. You also believe, in your fantasy world, that maybe Christ will come back and maybe you won’t have to die. He wanted her to work for his new organization. I’ll go to work now.” Dorothy Height could pull a string with her any day of the week. You have a husband and children that love you. Have you ever had a similar experience with her? When we were at the door, she said, “The cookies over there you have to get.” She took a step, and she said to me, “I can’t go on. “Monique, that’s a lovely name. That’s what’s wrong with you.” I said, “Yes, ma’am. She accepted that, and you couldn’t take the good of it if you didn’t take the bad. Was there anything you wanted to include but didn’t? As documentary filmmakers, we’ve often said, “You follow the story. RITA COBURN WHACK: I’m glad about those dates. You go over there and get them.” I didn’t want to leave her. I said, “Write it to Big Mo.” She looked up at me and asked skeptically, “Who’s Big Mo?” I started to cower, because everyone was now looking at me. Height told her, “You’re the best person for this position with Martin Luther King, because you are who you are, and I will help you.”
Dorothy Height was a person she said “Yes, ma’am” to. Angelou would say, “Yes, ma’am. Martin Luther King Jr. That goes at the top.” That pulled it together. MATTHEWS: It’s interesting that today is Dr. When we found her in the BBC clip — saying, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. She looked up to Dorothy Height from the time she brought her into the Civil Rights Movement until Height died. And at that time, they were diametrically opposed as to how to get to the same place. She was regretful about how she raised Guy, because she didn’t have any money, and was always traveling, working and working. How do you think that they influenced her path and who she became? And, on that date. It was her “gift” to the nation during the swearing-in ceremony of President Bill Clinton; a message filled with the hope that Americans would fully embrace the beautiful array of their diversity. She decided to get rid of 58 — which is what she called her home in Harlem — and settle in Winston-Salem. RCW: In the Christian faith, heaven is a possibility, or a probability if you believe. It’s difficult to raise money for documentaries, even for a film of this caliber, with a subject this iconic. I kept insisting there was nothing wrong, and she kept encouraging me to say something. Thank you!”
It made me think: “Why should I complain about anything when I have so many things?” She was trying to let me see that. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she wasn’t going to change her look. Maya Angelou’s America on that crisp, winter morning on January 20, 1993, as she delivered “On the Pulse of Morning,” the first presidential inaugural poem in 32 years. ¤
Monique N. It was a real film, because she was courageous enough to tell her story. What’s her phrase? I’m going from strength to strength.”
That’s something we all need to come to. King’s birthday and February 21, the date of this film’s premiere, is the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death — two significant dates for people who meant a great deal to Dr. She taught us that lesson. RCW: We were in Park City [for Sundance Film Festival] and went to Salt Lake City, Utah. We showed the film at a high school, and there was a young black man, 16 years old, who came up to us and said, “Thank you for this. But we also chose to tell you something that you didn’t know, such as the fact that President Clinton picked her because he grew up 20 miles from where Angelou was raised in Stamps, Arkansas. And, shortly after she moved, he was assassinated. We needed to take you into different levels of what you already knew, and then we needed to tell you things that you didn’t know. You’re down in the mouth,” which is a Southern phrase that my mother also used. FEBRUARY 21, 2017

“THE ASIAN, THE HISPANIC, THE JEW, the African, the Native American, the Sioux, the Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek, the Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, the Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, the Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher…” all were included in Dr. RCW: We also had to set up the time period. But if you looked at her, feeling sorry for her, she would look at you and say, “Put your face up. And, why don’t you all do something about that!”
What influenced your overall direction? She saw her role not only as a writer. Angelou would dress for breakfast with her gloves and her hat. I’m going to write this to Monique because in five years you won’t know who Big Mo is.” Big Mo was immortalized by Anna Deavere Smith in her play Fires in the Mirror. That’s important for people to see — young people especially. “[The poem] is like an eternal gift to America, and it will read well over 100 years from now.”  
Twenty-five years later, as that same diverse America protests a new administration sorely lacking in inclusiveness, the documentary, co-directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, serves as a posthumous gift from Angelou — a teenage prostitute who became an entertainer, scholar, and one of the most important literary figures of our time. You are new as morning. Bertha Flowers and Dr. How do you think your film will resonate with people who may only know Dr. Dorothy Height would come, and Dr. In the film, we get an account of Angelou’s life both in public and private from, among others, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, Common, and John Singleton, along with Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson. That’s what your problem is. I never heard of her before today.” That population exists. Here’s what’s wrong: You’re ungrateful. She thought all of them were going to be there, but it was a one-on-one. We did not want to make a film that was a hagiography. The film coming out at this time in history is provident. “She said to me that people her age should be ashamed to die because they hadn’t taught younger people enough before they were leaving the planet,” said Coburn Whack during a press conference at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena last month. “She was big, and she had the voice of God,” President Clinton recounts in Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a WNET American Masters film presentation airing February 21 on PBS. There’s so much to see of her story, but that can be expensive. That made us go deeper into the archives. There were some things that she was able to really go deep into. Were there any challenges? He would be that person that you’re talking about, and it played well with him. She often said that teaching was the most important thing that she gave to the world. Angelou in a new Trump administration era and beyond? BH: There’s one more thing — and I think Rita alluded to it — Maya Angelou always said that courage was the most important virtue because you couldn’t do anything else if you didn’t have the courage. It played well because of her honesty. For her to say, “At 18, I was a prostitute,” and to come back from that and not live in the past — a lot of people live 90 percent of their lives in the past. Matthews is a filmmaker who also teaches screenwriting, film theory, and Media Studies at Santa Monica College. In fact, it may be necessary that you encounter defeat, so that you know who you are” — we said, “That’s the show. BH: One of the segments that we cut out near the end was about her teaching, but it’s an extra [on the website and social media]. If she said to Maya Angelou, “I need you to write this.” Dr. You’re making money. It’s meant to come out now, because we need that voice of reason, of inclusion, of embracing diversity, and all the things that she stood for. Angelou did a signing at UCLA during my undergraduate years. She kept reinventing herself. Dr. Each scene, and it breaks down into scenes no matter what you do, has to start and end on her because it’s her story. There was the archival material, which was hers, but then we needed the Ford car driving down the road to recreate scenes of the tall, black woman who might have looked like her during the time when she was a prostitute, in order for you to feel the distress of it. Her involvement in The Blacks [a scathing socio-political stage production on race in the United States by Jean Genet] was a story that wasn’t well known. She was a bridge — and, in her thought, she continued to be a bridge of nonviolence, of peace, and by any means necessary. BH: We followed her story. You’re sitting here with me. Dr. That’s my rap name.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me down, “What is the name that your parents gave you?” I said, “Monique.” She nodded, satisfied. Angelou died at age 86 on May 28, 2014. She looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Oh, there’s something wrong. “I’m Big Mo. That’s the way she lived her life. Angelou’s last tweet: “I’m on my way to my ascent.” What does that mean in terms of her view of life? She taught at Wake Forest University for over 20 years. Dorothy I. But she was aware of her mortality. This time last year, we were on our way to the Sundance Film Festival, and here it is a year later. Angelou would say, “When do you need it by?” Dorothy Height would say, “Next week.” And Dr. She knew a lot had happened to her, but she got to the point where she saw herself free, in the sense that everything had informed who she would be next. Angelou. It’s almost as if she, God, and everyone else is going: “Okay, we’re going to make it on that day. BOB HERCULES: That’s right. “I helped her with her Twitter account, and I think her last tweet about two days before [she died] was something to the effect of, ‘I’m on my way to my ascent.’”
I spoke with the filmmakers following the press conference on the morning of celebrations honoring Dr. Angelou came in with her afro, and the women around the table were like, “You know you’re not assimilating.”
She left that meeting and got a call from Dorothy Height, who invited her back. We’re always going to face obstacles, and that’s the theme of the film: And still I rise. You don’t know where the story is going to go.” Obviously, we did our research, but you do go with her as the primary narrator of the film. What charge does that present to us as we live our lives? You have to keep reinventing yourself, and you have to keep getting up from defeat. But she went into it, and so did Lou Gossett and the other people we interviewed — so that dictated what stories we would tell, and, frankly, other stories that we wouldn’t have time to tell. We toyed around with having a voice-alike, but we just couldn’t do that, because nobody could be her. Angelou is known to have been a mentor (to Oprah Winfrey, Louis Gossett, and others), and she was mentored by Mrs. And, you’re right, Martin Luther King’s death and Maya Angelou’s   commitment to him and to his ideas — as she says in the film — “Was like cool water on a parched desert.”
She worked for Dr. They formed an immediate bond. It’s a lesson to all of us, especially at this time. RCW: “I thought I was a writer, and I found out I was a teacher who writes.”
Speaking of her role as a teacher: watching the film and seeing her interact with the young lady who made the mistake of calling Dr. Dr. Angelou as well as Rita, but what I take away from her story is the ability to overcome these huge obstacles.