Some people’s lives are bigger than they are; that was certainly the case with Maya Angelou. This “phenomenal woman” packed in a lot of living even for someone blessed with a relatively long journey of 86 years. That’s what’s most clear in the first-ever documentary on her life, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, airing Tuesday on PBS’s American Masters.
Thanks to her classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s many fans are familiar with her early childhood in Jim Crow-era Stamps, Ark., as well as her formative years spent in San Francisco. Others may have encountered her much later on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And scores more surely know her for delivering the inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning” when Bill Clinton became president in 1993. And in black communities across the nation, her poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” have electrified church programs and neighborhood gatherings for decades.
Many, however, don’t know what happened in between. They may have heard that she knew and worked with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Or that James Baldwin was one of her dearest friends. But even these relationships and the richness they gave her life only scratch the surface. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise digs into those crevices and delivers an overview that far exceeds one woman’s remarkable transit.
“American history can be looked at through my grandmother’s life, from the Great Migration from the South, the Jim Crow laws and other things as she developed,” her grandson Colin Johnson tells The Root. “And she’s dance history, theater, too. There’s film and TV. Literature. And so much more.”
“From the time I was a child, she knew everybody,” her son, Guy Johnson, who was born when she was just 17, shares with The Root. “I mean, Max Roach, Miles Davis, I first met them when I was 7 years old. Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, they were part of the people we knew. ... I was in Miles Davis’ basement when he was working on Sketches of Spain. When Leontyne Price used to come to town, we’d go to the opera. I never knew what it was like for her not to be the center, not to be one of the important people.”
A few of those important people check into the documentary. Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr. share their experiences starring with her in the 1961 New York production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks, where black actors played both white and black roles. Songwriter Valerie Simpson, entertainment impresario Quincy Jones, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey, also chime in.
Angelou’s friendship with Winfrey was inspiring. Winfrey, through her legendary talk show, introduced many to Angelou’s genius, but over the years, the two women became a powerful symbol of cross-generational sisterhood and friendship.
“I think my grandmother looked at Oprah not only as a friend, really like a sister-friend and a daughter-friend,” Colin offers. “I think my grandmother would have loved to have somebody to look out for her, and to be able to give that to Oprah was a gift. Think about it: How many people can Oprah call and lean on? Not for money; I’m talking about emotionally.”
Winfrey was not the only woman who leaned on Angelou emotionally. Angelou’s work spoke to women in ways that others before her had not. When her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969, few women spoke openly about being molested as children. Also, there were few positive examples of single mothers. So Angelou helped erase those stigmas while also falling in line with the times where women of all races were reaching new and incredible heights.
“One of the things about my mother’s books is that they inform people that even if bad things have happened to you,” explains Guy, “that’s not the end of your life—not if you want to live; not if you want to change what those things have done to you.”
In her advanced age, Angelou still didn’t slow down. Despite having a cushy job as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982, she kept up a furious pace—adding new books and new experiences like directing the 1998 film Down in the Delta, as well as maintaining a hectic appearance schedule. She was even personally involved in the filming of her documentary, which began about three years prior to her death in 2014 and was completed roughly at the end of 2015, just in time for its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
“She was going to work until she couldn’t work no more,” explains Colin. “She felt like her job wasn’t done yet. She felt like she hadn’t finished her job. I swear my father and I had tried to get her off the road for at least the last 20-some odd years. While her schedule did change some, the reality is, she still worked something like seven, eight months a year.”
Because she never stopped, it’s hard for any one documentary to do right by her. “When a life takes a certain expanse and the person who lives that life lives it to the fullest,” says Guy, “you can’t capture that all.”
American Masters’ Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise airs Tuesday on PBS at 8 p.m. It’s also available on DVD Feb. 21 and on digital HD Feb. 22.