It’s unfair to cram any life — least of all the truly extraordinary ones — into a neat, two-hour package meant for handy cinematic consumption, a point that is driven home repeatedly throughout Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack’s admirably comprehensive documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” Though the film endeavors to cover all of Angelou’s incredible life, complete with significant and compelling interviews featuring the subject herself, a series of essential talking heads and plenty of archival footage, it can hardly match the spark and originality of the woman it attempts to honor. Angelou’s life and work was rich, significant, influential and hugely varied, and yet “And Still I Rise” is hobbled by unimaginative delivery and direction.
In short, it’s limited, and Angelou’s own history proves that limitations must be fought against at every turn.
Still, Hercules and Whack’s attempts to distill down Angelou’s life into a single documentary offering are worthy of recognition, if only because the directing duo have crafted a nearly two-hour-long feature about the Pulitzer nominee that gives equal attention to all the stages of her life, not just the more mainstream latter ones. It’s no knock against the project that it should be required viewing in schools across America, if only in hopes that the country’s youth will have an understanding of Angelou and her words that goes beyond easily consumable (and often out of context) quotes that barely scratch the surface of her prodigious output.
A dancer, singer, actress, writer – “a consummate performer,” by one participant’s estimation – who lived her entire life on one kind of stage or another, “And Still I Rise” plods through all of the chapters of Angelou’s life with respect and appropriate contemplation, with the majority of it narrated and clarified by Angelou herself. A wonderfully skilled public speaker, Angelou guides the film through the many years of her life with a calm that would be unnerving coming from anyone else. She is both matter of fact about the worst of her experiences and eloquent in describing them, and though Angelou was often known to fudge some details — or wholesale deny them — the film’s audience will likely walk away thinking they know the whole story, if only because she’s so firmly convincing.
“I used to think of my whole body as an ear,” Angelou says of her youth, much of which was spent in a mute state after an early trauma, and that feeling never seemed to have left her. As the film stretches through her years singing and dancing on stage, her involvement with the civil rights movement, her time living in Ghana, her most rewarding friendships (material surrounding her long relationship with fellow writer James Baldwin is particularly special) and various ill-fated love affairs, all leading up to her later years as one of America’s most beloved poets, Angelou’s ability to observe and report never wanes. But the film’s own ability to approach things with a keen eye does, and “And Still I Rise” struggles to unearth its own meaning and originality, instead leaning on the power of Angelou’s own voice to carry it.
It’s no coincidence that some of the film’s most powerful sequences simply involve Angelou heading out into the world and interacting with others or reading her own work at various events. “And Still I Rise” may pack in plenty of educational value, but its emotion always come straight from Angelou, who is compelling in even the smallest of acts. Late in the film, Angelou unexpectedly meets a fan who, wide-eyed, tells her hero about all the speech contests she’s won reciting Angelou’s own famous words and, suddenly, they all seem new again — to Angelou and to us.
The film boasts a large number of very impressive talking heads, including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Hillary Clinton, John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s own son, Guy Johnson, all of whom add context and clarity to the mostly by-the-numbers outing. But Angelou herself is the star, one who is more riveting and original sitting in a chair, reciting the story of her life, than this — or most, really — documentary could ever hope to be on its own.
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” will open in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco theatres on Friday, October 14. It will air on the American Masters series this winter on PBS.