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‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise’ review: Vivid portrait of African-American icon

Maya Angelou, circa 1970.

Maya Angelou, circa 1970. Credit: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

WHAT “American Masters” — “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13


WHAT IT’S ABOUT A documentary on the life and work of Maya Angelou (1928-2014), the poet, author and civil rights activist best known for her groundbreaking 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and for her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The film, part of PBS’ long-running “American Masters” doc series, follows Angelou from a childhood in rural Arkansas through her career as a singer, dancer and actress to her years as an acclaimed literary and inspirational figure. Directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, it features vintage photos and film footage as well as interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and others.

MY SAY This two-hour documentary is so bursting with Angelou’s wisdom and joy that it’s hard to believe she’s been gone nearly three years. “And Still I Rise” is dominated, as it should be, by interview footage with Angelou herself as well as recordings of her work — her voice carries the film. Early on, she describes a seminal moment from her childhood — being sent as a young girl, with “no adult supervision,” by train from Los Angeles to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, in the heart of the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. “I was terribly hurt in this town,” she says, “and vastly loved.”

Later reunited with her mother in St. Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and stopped speaking — an episode she described in “Caged Bird” years later. The effect of that revelation was powerful for readers. “I’d never heard of another black woman, a young girl, who had been raped,” says Winfrey, who discovered the book at age 15. “So I read these words and thought: She knows who I am.”

Among the film’s delights are footage of Angelou performing calypso music — barefoot, in a form-fitting sheath dress — during the 1950s, and still photographs from the 1961 Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.” Castmates Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr. recall the avant-garde play, which scandalized audiences at the time. The film also outlines Angelou’s important friendships with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin, who encouraged her to write “Caged Bird.” Editor Robert Loomis observes that her great gift was her ability to “replicate herself on the page.” A chorus of voices attests to the uplifting influence that Angelou’s books — along with her many speeches and public appearances — had on American life.

BOTTOM LINE “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” takes a conventional cradle-to-grave approach to its subject, but it succeeds as a vivid and moving portrait of an African-American icon.

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