“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” the first film made about Maya Angelou’s life, is produced by local resident Rita Coburn Whack through PBS American Masters who recently talked with the Chronicle about her connections with the great poet.
Rita Coburn Whack dropped the phone.
“Dr.’s gone,” the voice on the other end just said.
The words invaded Whack’s consciousness, racing through her veins like a bitter poison, permeating the sanctity of her being. She understood the words and the finality behind them, but the depth of that truth battled against her consciousness.
“I knew she was older, but for some reason, you don’t expect people to die. You just don’t,” said Whack, of Flossmoor. “I think death is always surprising.”
The news of Maya Angelou’s death on May 28, 2014 spread quickly. Celebrities, industry insiders, fans and loyalists paid tribute to the cultural icon. The poet. The actor. The dancer. The filmmaker. Educator. And the activist. The Pulitzer Prize nominated author of seven autobiographies including, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and the recipient of more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees, three Grammys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not only defined the African-American experience; she was the voice narrating that experience, authentically and unapologetically, for a global audience.
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” is the first film made about Angelou’s life, produced by Whack and Bob Hercules through PBS American Masters. While folding in intimate moments from various perspectives, the film presents Angelou’s powerful voice over nearly nine decades in its full distinction and authority, and its influence on race, culture and advocacy.
The film weaves an intricate tapestry of hope, against all odds. “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” unveils the story of a young girl raped at 7 yearsold who did not speak for the next five years, immersing herself in literature instead. It tells the story of surviving and thriving in the era of Jim Crow. It illuminates Angelou’s work with Malcolm X, her work with President Bill Clinton, and the passion, pain and dignity behind her prose. And also,her laughter.
In the late 1990s, Whack first interviewed Angelou in her capacity as a radio producer in Chicago. Whack was well known as a television and radio producer, filmmaker, host, novelist and storyteller.
Their paths would cross again in 2006 when Whack was hired by Harpo Studios to serve as producer for Angelou’s show on Oprah Radio.
In that capacity, from 2006 to 2010, Whack spent one week out of each month in Angelou’s home, in either Winston-Salem or New York, where they would present the show onsite, allowing Angelou, then in her 70’s, to host the show without leaving her residence.
With Whack at the helm, Angelou would serve as host to guests like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, poet Sonia Sanchez, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan singers Martina McBride, Alicia Keyes, Dolly Parton, Jennifer Hudson, Kanye West, Common and Queen Latifah, among others.
It was from these experiences, and later, a meeting with Bob Hercules, owner of Media Process Group, that the idea for a documentary was born. Hercules had an established body of work with American Masters. Whack had the desire to illuminate parts of Angelou’s story, yet untold. She also had the privilege of access, a personal relationship with Angelou and her blessing to “pursue.”
“I looked at the range of impact she had, from civil rights activism to contemporary artists of this generation,” Whack said. “She was fully engaged. And I realized, ‘Here was a documentary, telling an American and international history, from a black woman’s point of view.’”
But Angelou’s passing, on May 28, 2014, came before she’d had an opportunity to see her story.
“I wanted to do a job worthy of her life,” Whack says.
To date, the documentary has won 17 awards on three continents. It’s been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Its screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival solidified its place among serious contenders, with funding to boot.
From nearly 200 hours of tape and over 4,000 photographs, Whack and Hercules captured the essence of Angelou in this documentary, in its vibrant beauty and purpose, with contributions from Bill and Hillary Clinton, host Oprah Winfrey, musician Quincy Jones, actresses Cicely Tyson and Alfre Woodard, film director and producer John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson.
“She loved to laugh. She loved listening to country music because she said it told a story. And she loved to play Boggle,” Whack recalls, who had her own room in Angelou’s home for their week-long productions each month.
“I’d think, ‘How am I playing Boggle with Dr. Maya Angelou?’ I didn’t know all the words she’d come up with and she’d say, ‘Look it up!’ And then she’d laugh. She always said she didn’t trust people who didn’t laugh. She could also check you like a piece of luggage. She’d say, ‘I’ll be of use, but I will not be used.’”
“I hope that people are inspired by her life and her legacy,” Whack says. “No matter what is going on around you, there is so much you can do much with your life. The message is to continue.”
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” airs on PBS at 8 p.m. Feb. 21. The film is a co-production of The People Poet Media Group, LLC, American Masters Pictures, and ITVS in association with Artemis Rising.