Raped at age seven, famed author Maya Angelou refused to speak for the next five years. The experience stands at the centre of her debut 1969 novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The instant best seller takes its name from a line in the Paul Laurence Dunbar work, “Sympathy,” and has never been out of print.
Those familiar (or not) with the narrative will find themselves transfixed by Angelou when, in And Still I Rise, she recounts her journey from sexually abused black girl to the “Phenomenal Woman” depicted in her poem of the same title; a work that the writer, activist, actor, singer, dancer, and film director performed, to triumphant effect, all over the world.
Speaking with the sonorous Shakespearean diction that came to define her, Angelou, author of 36 books, declares in the film: “I had a lot to say.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise will premiere at 7pm on Saturday, March 4 at the Spatz Theatre, 1855 Trollope Street, Halifax. The event is part of a series of Black Film Festivals that Montreal entrepreneur Fabienne Colas has mounted in Canadian cities since 2005.
Co-directed by Chicago filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn-Whack, the documentary has garnered glowing reviews since its release last fall. “It paints a portrait of a life lived to the full and dedicated to being oneself,” noted The Guardian.
In addition to dazzling interviews with Angelou (nee Marguerite Ann Johnson), the two-hour film features commentary from figures such as comic Dave Chappelle, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Cicely Tyson, and Oprah Winfrey. Severely injured while living in Africa with his mother, Angelou’s only child, Guy Johnson, shares powerful memories.
Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at age 86.
An accomplished media professional who’d collaborated with Angelou on other projects, Coburn-Whack will attend the Halifax screening and participate in a follow-up discussion. About her inspiration for And Still I Rise, she says: “I re-read (Angelou’s) books and realized she was telling history from a black woman’s point of view … missing not only from … the classroom but … from popular culture. And a documentary was the best way to (engage) an existing and new generation.”
In a riveting scene that frames the complexity of Angelou’s ascent, the author reprimands a youngster for behaviour that she, as an adult, interprets as “offensive.” Visibly shaken, the black girl is rendered mute.
Less courageous filmmakers might have left the disquieting footage on the cutting room floor. In presenting the moment to viewers, Hercules and Coburn-Whack give studied and unflinching voice to the long reach of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door (plus tax and service fee). Visit: HalifaxBlackFilm.com.