By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Chicago Crusader
The Gene Siskel Film Center will screen a great 2016 documentary that I admit had me in tears toward the end as I reflected upon my own life. “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” will have its exclusive premiere at the Center, located at 164 N. State St., from September 16 through September 29.
Distinctly referred to as “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture,” icon Maya Angelou gave people the freedom to think about their history in a way they never had before. Dr. Angelou’s was a prolific life, and she inspired generations with lyrical modern African-American thought that pushed boundaries.
This unprecedented film celebrates Dr. Angelou by weaving her words with rare and intimate archival photographs and videos, which paint hidden moments of her exuberant life during some of America’s most defining moments. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana to her inaugural speech for President Bill Clinton, the film takes us on an incredible journey through the life of a true American icon.
The film also features a remarkable series of interviews with friends and family, including Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Secretary Hillary Clinton, John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, among others.
An artist who became her friend and reportedly was left some of Dr. Angelou’s personal belongings after her death in 2014 was Valerie Simpson. Simpson recalled when her late husband and singing partner Nickolas Ashford first saw Dr. Angelou and thought that, beyond her breath of work and poetry, she was sexy. “We had been living in Black and white, and she brought color,” Simpson said, as she set up a clip in which the three of them collaborated on a song, the album for which is no longer available.
The documentary also revealed that Dr. Angelou always took notice of a strong, smart man and shared that among her many romantic liaisons that she may have had a relationship with B.B. King, after the two of them collaborated on a song for the movie “For Love of Ivy.” However, after a couple of failed marriages, Dr. Angelou’s son laments the fact that she was never very happy for a long period of time. He doted on his mother, as his mother doted on him, particularly after a car accident when he was 17 left him temporarily paralyzed.
Johnson revealed a story where Dr. Angelou had been chosen by the director and producer to be Pearl Bailey’s understudy in “Hello Dolly,” but Bailey was adamant against Dr. Angelou being her understudy, even though the job would have given her and her son a chance to live in New York together, after Dr. Angelou had been on the road for a long time while performing in “Porgy and Bess.” Johnson recalled that time: “Oh no; I ain’t gonna have this big, old, ugly girl be my understudy,” Johnson recollected Bailey saying. He mentioned the heartbreak he felt upon rarely seeing his strong, independent mother in tears. He added that 35 years later, Bailey chose Dr. Angelou to present her with an esteemed award, and his mother never uttered a word about her previous let down. “And guess who gave it to her and never said a damn thing,” Johnson said, in tears.
Dr. Angelou was, indeed, many things: a poet, writer, singer, actress, activist, dancer, philosopher, professor, and for some she was widely known after her iconic 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” but others had never heard of her before her 1993 poem “On The Pulse of Morning” during Clinton’s inauguration. “That poem is kind of like an eternal gift to America, and it will read well 100 years from now,” Clinton said during an interview. “She was big, and she had the voice of God.” Just as Dr. Angelou didn’t think she could write anything more than poetry, when prodded to write her autobiography, she revealed that she got a kick out of the publicity surrounding the announcement that she would write a poem for the inauguration. “A public poem is a contradiction,” she said, as people asked about the progression of the poem prior to its unveiling.
Dr. Angelou’s wisdom was far reaching, as she detailed that on the set of “Poetic Justice” she confronted Tupac Shakur after scolding him for his rough language, even though she didn’t know who he was at the time. But after they had an intimate chat, and she reminded him of his worth, he seemed at peace and was able to calm down. She also spoke with comedian Dave Chappelle, after he walked away from millions, telling him: “There’s someplace that no one can take you beyond.” The documentary also revealed the friendship/relationship that she shared with the great author James Baldwin. They were like siblings, and the two would discuss at length issues about her career.
There is so much in this documentary—from Dr. Angelou’s sometimes tragic childhood to her dancing in a strip club to her indelible impression upon the world—that makes it a “must see.” So many heavy hitters speaking fondly of Dr. Angelou, and so many personal details revealed, that it opens up a wealth of intimate information about the esteemed luminary—much in the way that Dr. Angelou’s writings looked into her soul. “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” has won a number of awards, so far. Winner, Best Documentary, 2016 Boulder International Film Festival; Winner, Best Documentary, 2016 Ft. Myers Film Festival; Audience Award, 2016 AFI Docs Film Festival and Audience Award, 2016 Cinetopia Film Festival.
For more information about this documentary that will surely leave audience members fascinated, call 312.846.2800 or visit http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/mayaangelou.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For information about her book, visit http://tinyurl.com/om4hvgo or email [email protected].