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‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise’ Review: Comprehensive Documentary Lacks the Spark of Its Subject

The multi-hyphenate's remarkable life is carefully covered, so why does it lack the fire of its inspiration?

“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

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.

READ MORE: First Feature Length Documentary On Maya Angelou Currently In The Works

“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.

"Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise"

“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

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.

Grade: B-

“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.

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Comments

G.M.

I respectfully disagree with all the main points of this review. This is a documentary not to be missed. I saw this documentary at a film festival last winter. Perhaps I was living in a film festival bubble at the time, but I can honestly saying objectively that this film was enthusiastically received unlike Ms. Erbland. There are a couple points that I need to make about this documentary that this review never even mentions. First, I have no affiliation to this documentary or the filmmakers whatsoever. I am not partial to the subject matter in such a way to cloud my better judgment. I never once found this documentary plodding or unimaginative in the slightest. If fact I feel so strongly about that, I wonder was Ms. Erbland’s energy level was when the film was screened for her. What makes this film so special and unique is that Maya Angelou is the narrator of her own story. This is typically rare for this for this type of documentary. Ordinarily this would be filmed posthumously, but instead production took place literally right before her death. This was the first time she had ever agreed to do a documentary so this piece of film making as an archive of her life makes it noteworthy. Additionally, not much how well you are familiar with Maya Angelou’s poems and writings there are absolutely fascinating revelations in this film, which will literally make your jaw drop. Very few people remember her starring in Poetic Justice but there is even a scene describing Maya Angelou interacting with Tupac Shakur on set, which in itself makes this film worth its weight. Finally, this review also doesn’t mention the wealth of stock footage and photo archive that is used in this film. It is truly astounding how many images they were able to assemble in this film. Comparatively, Liz Garbus’ film about Nina Simone last year had to recycle several photos and video throughout that film. As Maya Angelou’s legacy might be waning in American culture to some respect, this film reignites all the reasons why we need to remember this incredible woman.

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