Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise reveals that she was just as vibrant and joyful in her personal life as she appeared to admirers from afar.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou.

by Danielle Dorsey

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” Maya Angelou’s words are unwavering as she introduces her documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

A newspaper announces another lynching, solemn-faced Black men hold signs that proclaim “I am a MAN,” and grainy videos show activists blocking the path of towering army tanks. These images mirror the tenacity of Angelou’s spirit and all she’d overcome in her 86 years.

These images set the tone for the first feature documentary that attempts to summarize the life of the enigmatic poet/author/singer/dancer/actor/director/activist/mother. That’s a lot of slashes, but as I watched the film, I found myself in awe of the many contradictions she possessed and how unapologetically Angelou lived her truth.

And Still I Rise chronicles the artist’s impressive journey from a mute Black girl growing up in rural Arkansas to a prolific figure in American history. It intertwines Angelou’s revealing commentary with rare archival photographs and videos that prove that she was just as vibrant and joyful in her personal life as she appeared to admirers from afar. Friends and family, including President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, John Singleton, and Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, offer their experiences with her in a series of interviews.

In the film, Angelou honors every part of her journey as equally important in shaping the woman she was. She does not shy away from her time as a sex worker, nor is she ashamed. She speaks of her time working in strip clubs and how that led to other opportunities onstage as a singer and dancer. Those more familiar with Angelou’s books might be surprised to see her in sleek beaded dresses, moving rhythmically in front of captive audiences.

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And Still I Rise reveals just how many times she broke through boundaries. She became the first Black woman with a nonfiction best-seller, thanks to her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In 1993, she was the first Black poet to perform an inaugural recitation — at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I got chills when they replayed the original footage, remembering the pride I’d felt as a young child watching a woman who looked like me conquer that American stage.

Angelou lived loudly. Even in her later years, her mind was sharp, her opinions stronger than ever. Directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise arrives at the perfect time, reminding audiences that insurmountable odds can be climbed and of the glory that lives on the other side.

Watch the nationwide premiere Tuesday, February 21 on PBS as part of the 31st season of THIRTEEN’s American Masters series.

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