This year’s Sundance Film Festival premiered a documentary about someone St. Louisans know and love: the incomparable Maya Angelou. The film is titled “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” and will have its St. Louis premiere on Thursday, March 24 at the Missouri History Museum, as part of Washington University Libraries Film & Media Archive’s Henry Hampton Film Series. It is the first documentary to be made about Angelou’s life.
The film’s co-director, Rita Coburn Whack, joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh to discuss the film and her career working with Angelou. From 2006 until 2010, Whack was the director of special projects and producer for Oprah Radio’s Maya Angelou Show. She says that her relationship with Angelou ended up being both professional and a friendship—but it started for Whack when she was ten years old, reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“About 1970, one of the things that I realized was that her voice was a voice that wasn’t in my library,” Whack said. “’Pippi Longstocking’ and ‘Encyclopedia Brown’ were there, but I didn’t see any little black girls and I didn’t see any grown women writing books.”
Whack says that finding Angelou’s work changed her life. Later, while Whack was working for WBEZ in Chicago, she had the chance to interview Angelou about her books on public radio.
“It ended up being a mentorship, friendship, and just a lot of respect there,” Whack said. “The first thing that comes to mind is how generous she really was. When I say that, I don’t mean generosity on a small scale but on a deep spiritual level.”
Whack said that the first time she was invited to Angelou’s home, she went there at the behest of Oprah Winfrey to record enough radio shows for her to have a weekly show.
“She looked at me and said ‘You’re so-so and too-too and everything is going to be fine, dear,’” Whack said. “’In a moment we’re going to have a lot of fun. You’re not going to need a hotel—you’ll stay with me. You’ll have this room as long as you come. You can raid the refrigerator. I will cook for you, and we will sing and talk together. When I travel, you can join me.’ It was just immediate, open your home.”
Whack said that Angelou would read passages she was working on and that the phone would ring and President Bill Clinton would be on the other end of the line. Famous poets and writers graced her dinner table and she would host fascinating conversations with them.
“She was also tough, she was always teaching,” Whack said. “Everybody knew that sooner or later, you were going to get it. She would take something you said and take you to task.”
Whack said that Angelou realized “the gravity of something that had been put upon her,” even when her health began to decline in the mid-2000s.
“There were times that she would talk and she would marvel that people would stop and listen to what she had to say,” she continued.
Whack worked with filmmaker Bob Hercules to co-direct the film. She said that Angelou did not see the finished product and her family did not have a say in what went into it or what was left out—their only role was to fact check the film for accuracy.
The duo started with 4,000 images and 750 hours of video and winnowed it down to 310 images and 29 minutes of cumulative film in the hour and 53 minute documentary. Whack said that what separates her filmmaking from other types of documentary is that she was “interested in more content than just film.”
“I feel like I meet her at the place of being a griot and wanting to tell the history,” Whack said. “A lot of filmmakers that get into documentary are frustrated historians. We don’t have the patience for all the history, but we want to tell it right.”
Whack said that she thought Angelou would be smiling to know that the film had finally come to St. Louis, her place of birth, and that she would be proud of it. She also said that you couldn’t ask for a documentary subject with a more compelling story.
“It was the poverty of riches,” Whack said. “There was so much. We did the best we could. We could not keep as many things as we wanted to. Our rubric became, it needed to be about her, her life.”
What: Film Screening: “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”
When: Thursday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis 63112
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.