A portrait of the artist in her final years: Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise”

Rita Coburn Whack is the co-director and co-producer of the profound documentary about the life of Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise.” Hers are some of the last recorded interviews of the artist’s life, combined with delightful archival footage and stories from Angelou’s inner circle.

Coburn Whack told me she first encountered “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as “a little black girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. You pick up that book, and you see a black woman on the back cover. And you’re ten years old. You run home, and you read it. And you think, ‘Wow, what happened here?’ Some of it, you found embarrassing — ‘Don’t tell about our poverty, don’t tell about the way we talk.’ Then you get older and you realize that your story is your story.”

Did you know Maya was mute at two different points in her life? About her turn in the iconoclastic play The Blacks? Personally, I can never hear the Tupac story enough. PBS has just made “And Still I Rise” available to stream right here.

Tell me about your role on the film — how it drew on past work you’ve done, and what was uncharted territory for you?

I would describe myself in terms of a filmmaker and a storyteller. I chase the story until it starts to chase me. I started as a reader. I became a writer. I did a novel of my own. And then, I met Maya Angelou. Later, I became her radio producer for what was called Oprah Radio at the time, on XM Sirius. 
 
I’m listening in my headset, and I’m like, “This is a fantastic story. This woman is writing history in her own way.” And black women had not written the history books. We were marginalized, if there at all. We were paragraphs in 800 page books. And this woman — from the Jim Crow South, born in 1928, went through the Great Migration in the ’30s, when it was rough and tumble, with a family that dealt with everything from prohibition, to fighting, to the pool halls. Then she goes with the state department in the 1950s, tours the world! — has a relationship with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I’m hearing all this, I’m seeing people call and stop by — Chris Rock stops by, she has a relationship with Common, she has a relationship with Cicely Tyson. President Clinton calls. And I’m going, “This is a documentary!” So roundabout 2010 we ended that show on Oprah Radio, and 2011, ’12, ’13, I took her to public radio, doing Black History Month Specials. Then I ask her, could I do a documentary on her life.

She said, “Do you know what you’re asking?”

She also said, “I don’t need another thing.” She had done seven memoirs. She was near the end of her life, and knew it, and I was asking her to go back and relive all of that. I think because we’d had this relationship since 2010, she said, “If you’re going to take it, take it all the way.” That became the mantra in my head.

I think she also knew that this industry was still not in a structure that was favorable to black women, and that I would have to kick doors open, fight for everything, and plow my way to make the relationships necessary, and to use the relationships I had, to tell the story. And I think she also, very wisely, knew — “If you do this right, this thing is going to take you all the places I was, and new places — it’s gonna take you all over the world. Do you know what you’re asking?” The answer to that was, “No.”

We’re beginning to find out. We have now won ten awards on three different continents. I’m taking the film to England, to Cape Town, South Africa, getting ready to take it to Paris this week. People are inspired by the reality of one woman’s truth. It’s not a hagiography. They see the joy, they see the dark sides, they see life brought to them from a different perspective. She told what she could, and you identified with that. I think she knew that she had something people needed.

In making the film and sharing this long history with her, what did you learn for your own life’s map?

I think that one of the things that I learned from her was to be in the moment where you are, and be so fully in that moment that you get everything you can from it. God didn’t put you in a particular place for no reason, so to stay in that place and fully experience it, no matter how painful it is.

When we found this quote from an interview she did with the BBC, we knew we found our opening. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter defeat so that you know who you are.” That, to me, was her life, and it’s all of our lives. We encounter defeats every day, whether it’s sexism, ageism, racism, or love that doesn’t work. Or raising children that gets hard. But you can’t be defeated, you have to keep going. I think the universality of that, it’s something that I’ve learned, from doing this film. And it was something that she taught me.