Rita Coburn Whack is an award-winning writer, producer and director for television, magazines, series, news, talk shows, documentary programming and social media. Coburn Whack is the owner of RCW Media Productions, Incorporated and manages a number of video and public relations projects. Her television projects include three Emmy Award-winning documentaries and productions for local and public-television programs airing on C-SPAN and the History Channel. (Press materials)
“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 26. The documentary is co-directed by Bob Hercules.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
RCW: [The documentary reflects] on how events in history, culture and the arts shaped Dr. Angelou’s life and how she, in turn, helped shape our own worldview through her autobiographical literature and activism. It is a story of perseverance and triumph, filled with untold aspects of her life that will educate audiences about her story.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
RCW: Like many, I read Maya Angelou as an adolescent. I identified Maya Angelou as one of the women in my community and embraced the pain, truth and beauty of our story.
Later, I interviewed Maya Angelou for public radio, then produced her Oprah radio show. [While] producing the show, I realized that I was listening to history being told from a black woman’s point of view. This was a seldom-used source for our culture. I knew then that a documentary was the best way to tell the story.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
RCW: With so many people having some knowledge of Maya Angelou, we needed to pull from the familiar and also search for the truths that were not known. What we found was a huge story and many choices of what to tell. It had to be made in such a way that the audience would walk away feeling sated.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
RCW: A quote from Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” I want people to feel the truth about the human spirit — you can triumph over any part of life, and that is called living.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
RCW: We are not monolithic; we are multifaceted and our voices need to be heard. Don’t allow your ideas to be dismissed. Work with faith and intention. Fight in your spirit for every scene. Let the story guide you, and tell the truth as you see it.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
RCW: Racism and sexism still exist in this medium and in our culture. If you understand that premise, you will be misunderstood often. The misconception is that since you have completed a project, you can take a deep breath and be content. This is not a medium of contentment. It is a medium of constant variables and a need to continue to work across all media.
As black women or as women of any descent, if we do not continue to tell our own stories, many of the stories told will misrepresent the larger culture.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
RCW: American Masters, ITVS (for whom we are so grateful for the early interest), NEA, NBPC, Ford Foundation, private funding and the support of Artemis Rising — as well as a Kickstarter campaign.
Our film was a joint effort by people who generously gave as a public and as representatives of strong philanthropic entities, as well as people who were inspired by Maya Angelou. There was a true outpouring of a multi-cultural contingent with the desire to see this story told.
The people we interviewed generously and truthfully gave of themselves and became our heroes — and as Dr. Angelou would say, she-roes.
Bob Hercules, my co-director, who worked with American Masters on other films, made a great contribution. We put together a great staff and researched until we made it happen. If a story emerged without supporting archival, I kept the story and found the archival. We let Maya Angelou dictate the story, and we followed her lead.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
RCW: “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay tackled an enormous project and brought together the sensitivities of our culture, with all its failings. DuVernay also brought the triumphant lives of not only Martin Luther King, Jr., but his ground crew and other brave Americans into our memory again. For some people of our younger generation, this is a story they were not as familiar with for whatever reason. I applaud her style, bravery and deep connection to the material.