First Feature Documentary On The Author/Activist Features Exclusive Interviews With Dr. Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Bill And Hillary Clinton, And Others
Year-Long #InspiringWomanPBS Online Campaign Launches This Week At pbs.org/americanmasters
Distinctly referred to 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. The first feature documentary about her life, American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, premieres nationwide Tuesday, February 21 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) 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. The film title is based on one of our favorite poems by Dr. Angelou, “Still I Rise” from her poetry collection And Still I Rise (Random House).
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 (1957’s Miss Calypso album and Calypso Heat Wave film, Jean Genet’s 1961 play The Blacks) to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana and her many writing successes, including her inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton, American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise reveals hidden facets of her life during some of America’s most defining moments. The film also features exclusive interviews with Dr. Angelou, her friends and family, including (in alphabetical order) Diahann Carroll, actress; Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State; Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the U.S.’ Common, hip-hop artist/actor; Jules Feiffer, writer/cartoonist; Nikki Giovanni, writer; Louis Gossett, Jr., actor; Guy B. Johnson, Dr. Angelou’s son; Quincy Jones, musician/producer/composer; Robert Loomis, Dr. Angelou’s editor; Don Martin, dancer/opened for Dr. Angelou; Louise Meriwether, writer; Eugene Redmond, professor of English literature; Valerie Simpson, singer/songwriter; John Singleton, director; Cicely Tyson, actress; Alice Windom, friend/roommate in Ghana (1963-65); Oprah Winfrey, global media leader/philanthropist and Alfre Woodard, actress.
“It was a unique privilege to be the first filmmakers to tell Dr. Angelou’s full story and exciting to uncover stories that most people hadn’t heard,” said co-director and co-producer Bob Hercules.
“The film reflects on how the events of history, culture and the arts shaped Dr. Angelou’s life, and how she, in turn, helped shape our own worldview through her autobiographical literature and activism,” said co-director and co-producer Rita Coburn Whack.
“It is bittersweet that Dr. Angelou takes her rightful place in the American Masters series posthumously,” said executive producer Michael Kantor, Co-Executive Producer and American Masters series Executive Producer. “We are fortunate that Bob and Rita captured these insightful interviews with her just prior to her death so we can all learn from her wisdom firsthand.”
“Like many films we’ve worked on, there’s always the narrative you have in your head about the subject and then there’s the actual narrative that emerges after several years of filming. This proved to be the case on our film about the life of the remarkable Maya Angelou,” further states Coburn Whack and Hercules. “What emerged, surprisingly, were several stories from her life that were nearly unknown to most people and therefore quite intriguing to us. Few people knew that Maya Angelou performed in a revolutionary Jean Genet play called The Blacks in 1961 with a cast of actors that would all go on to great acclaim: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Lou Gossett, Jr. and Charles Gordone. Similarly, most people don’t know that Maya Angelou had a career as a calypso singer and dancer in the 1950s and actually appeared in a movie called Calypso Heat Wave. We were able to track down the movie and it’s a revelation to see her performing in beautiful black and white footage. Another little-known part of her story that emerged is Maya Angelou’s life in Africa in the early 1960s. Though she talks about it in her books it’s fascinating to hear her describe her trip to Cape Coast in Ghana, the terrible place where the slave ships embarked hundreds of years ago. Or to hear her describe the excitement of living in newly liberated Ghana and meeting with Malcolm X on his pilgrimage to Africa. It was a unique privilege to be the first filmmakers to tell her full story and it was exciting to uncover some of these ‘secret’ stories that most people hadn’t heard. That’s the wonder of being a documentary filmmaker.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise premiered to critical acclaim at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Audience Award at AFI Docs and was featured at notable film festivals worldwide, including Full Frame, Sheffield, IDFA and Seattle, winning 17 awards on three continents, and has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
Bob Hercules is an independent filmmaker whose recent films include American Masters – Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance and American Masters – Bill T. Jones: A Good Man. The Joffrey film, narrated by Mandy Patinkin, tells the full story of the groundbreaking ballet company and their many rises and falls. It premiered in January 2012 at the Dance on Camera Film Festival at Lincoln Center and aired on PBS December 2012. A Good Man aired in 2011 and played at many film festivals including IDFA, Silverdocs, Full Frame, DOXA and the Southern Circuit. Hercules’ acclaimed Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2005) won the Special Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival and has been seen in film festivals around the world. He is based in Chicago.
Rita Coburn Whack is an independent filmmaker with Emmy-Award winning documentaries for Curators of Culture, Remembering 47th Street and African Roots American Soil. Other documentaries have aired on C-Span and the History Channel. Under her direction Dr. Maya Angelou’s radio show for Oprah Radio was awarded the Women in Radio and Television Gracie Awards, “Best Radio Program” (2008) and “Best Radio Host” (2009), and the “Silver World Medal” at the 2009 Radio New York Festival. Author of the novel Meant to Be (Random House Strivers Row 2002), her company RCW Media Productions, Inc., produced Dr. Angelou’s Black History Month specials, distributed by Public Radio International in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Coburn Whack is based in Chicago.
American Masters has also launched a year-long online campaign, #InspiringWomanPBS, based on themes central to Dr. Angelou’s life: artistic expression, academic success, active community engagement and acceptance of difference. People can share stories of inspirational women in their own lives via text, images or videos on the American Masters website (http://pbs.org/americanmasters) or via Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #InspiringWomanPBS.
A video compilation series of the best submissions will be featured on PBS’ Instagram Stories and Snapchat channels throughout the year. Additionally, previously unreleased videos from Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise and In Their Own Words: The American Masters Digital Archive will be released as part of the campaign, as well as new episodes of the American Masters Podcast.
WNET Education will work with local PBS stations and local arts organizations across the country to engage diverse audiences in the campaign through a series of free, community-based screening events. They will also create educational resources based on the film for PBS LearningMedia. Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, #InspiringWomanPBS is the latest example of American Masters and WNET’s commitment to educate and entertain audiences beyond broadcast.
American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is a co-production of The People’s Poet Media Group, LLC, THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET, and ITVS in association with Artemis Rising. Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack are directors. David E. Simpson and Lillian E. Benson are editors. Keith Walker is director of photography, with original music by Stephen James Taylor. Rita Coburn Whack, Bob Hercules, Jay Alix and Una Jackman are producers. Reuben Cannon, Marquetta Glass, Steve Sarowitz, Michael Kantor, Regina Scully, Chris Gardner, Raymond Lambert, Susan Lacy and Sally Jo Fifer are executive producers. Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer.
Funding for Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is provided in part by IDP Foundation, Ford Foundation/Just Films, National Endowment for the Arts, National Black Programming Consortium, Anne Ulnick, Michael Metelits, and Loida and Leslie Lewis.
Launched in 1986, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. The series’ 31st season on PBS features new documentaries about Patsy Cline (March), Chef James Beard (May 19) and Chef Jacques Pépin (May 26). American Masters is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and also seen on the WORLD channel.
Major support for American Masters is provided by AARP. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, Ellen and James S. Marcus, Vital Projects Fund, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation and public television viewers.