Art Works Blog

FlashbackFriday: Art Talk with Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn-Whack About "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise"

Filmmakers Rita Coburn-Whack and Bob Hercules knew only one thing for sure about one another when they first met: they both deeply admired the writer and activist Maya Angelou. They were also puzzled by the same thing: Why hadn't anyone yet made a documentary about the icon whose work had galvanized and inspired people for generations? Luckily, PBS's American Masters agreed with them that the time had come, and the duo joined forces for Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, which made its debut at the AFI Docs festival last year, winning the coveted Audience Award. Since then, the NEA-supported film has been screened at countless festivals across the country and around the world, garnering 17 awards in all and a nomination for an NAACP Image Award. We spoke with Coburn-Whack and Hercules about making the film, exploring ideas of what truth means when telling the story of someone's life, and what kept them going over the multi-year filmmaking process.

NEA: What was the genesis of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and how did you come to work together on the film?

BOB HERCULES: Around 2011, I was developing an idea for a documentary about Dr. Maya Angelou just because I was a huge fan of her work…. I did some Google searches and [searched on] IMDB [Internet Movie Database] and discovered that nobody had ever made a film about her, which is astonishing to me given the depth of her story and how important she is to our culture. So I started to do more research and started to develop the idea of doing a full-length documentary about her. I had done two other films for American Masters, the PBS series, and it seemed like it would be a great fit for them, especially if I could get Dr. Angelou to agree to do it. At that point, a mutual friend of ours introduced Rita and me. Rita was developing her own idea of a similar film, and that’s how we joined forces.

NEA: Rita, what was the genesis of the project you were working on before you and Bob decided to partner on a project?

RITA COBURN-WHACK: From 2006 to 2010, I did a weekly radio show with [Maya Angelou]. I would take my radio equipment, and I would go to Winston-Salem or Harlem where she had homes, and I would record her…. [When the radio project ended] I asked her, “Would you do a documentary?” She knew Bob, and she knew me, and she knew that Bob was interested in doing a documentary, and she knew that I was working on a similar project, so she said, “You two need to know each other.” We had one lunch and said, “Let’s do this.” We didn’t know each other’s working styles; we didn’t know much about each other, but we knew the importance of doing this documentary, and we knew that we needed to be able to deliver…. I subsequently found out that many people had asked her to do this, and she had said no, but over the course of those years, in working with her, I had built up enough trust to eventually get a yes.

an older white man and black woman stand together on a film set

Filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn-Whack. Photo by Keith Walker

NEA: How did you decide on the structure for the film?

HERCULES: We decided immediately, both of us together, that it would be absurd to have a narrator, because [Maya Angelou] would essentially narrate the film with her wonderful voice and her storytelling ability. The second thing is we realized that the story was just enormous, and even though the film is two hours, we could’ve easily made a six-hour film. There are just so many good stories. So we had to figure out a strategy to condense or consolidate her story so it was manageable. Originally, it was going to be a 90-minute film, and then it ended up being nearly two hours for American Masters. Our strategy was to go in-depth on certain stories that were either just great stories or [where people] really didn’t know the full story, or stories that were almost completely unknown. [One of the stories in the film is on] The Blacks, the Jean Genet play that Maya was in and the famous cast of Lou Gossett and Cicely Tyson and everybody. That’s a fairly unknown story, so it’s those kind of things we wanted to do in greater depth. We didn’t want to make what I would call a list film or a greatest hits film. We wanted to really have some depth of certain stories, and hopefully those stories at greater length would be emblematic of her whole story. The third thing we settled upon was a basic outline in the beginning, but of course, like with any documentary, it takes a life of its own. So we really had to follow the story as it unfolded. I’ve been making documentaries my whole life, and I’ve found that you may have assumptions of things or you may think you know the whole story, but once you start doing interviews with people, the story takes a different path in some ways…. There were some surprising things even to us, really, stories that we hadn’t heard before or things we didn’t realize like how many husbands she claimed to have had, things like that. It was a really wonderful journey to be on.

COBURN-WHACK: In telling the story, my rubric was always the same: that the themes should start to land on the character…. That has to be done in a subtle fashion, because you’re combing through the ideas, and you need to take [me as a viewer] into greater depth, but you also need to let me have a seamless experience when I sit and watch, so that I enter the story, I’m not out of it. Our research included going through 4,000 photographs to get the 314 that are in the film and going through more than 150 hours of various video to get the 29 minutes centered on her that are in the film. You’re uncovering, unraveling, chasing, combing it through. There’ll be many stories on Maya Angelou, but which one is this? Like Bob said, it’s not a greatest hits film.

As filmmakers a lot of times we’re frustrated historians, and I’m one personally, because a lot of the stories out there don’t talk about things that I know about. They don’t show [the African-American community] in a way that I think is healthy. [They don’t show] that it’s not monolithic. I look at Maya Angelou transcending being just a black woman but also being a black woman in her time period and tracking history to a great extent with her life. This was a way to check all the boxes of what I would want to do as a filmmaker—to tell the stories of my community and to tell them from the point of view of a woman. The history books haven’t been written by black women, and here she is telling historically some things that you don’t find in the books, but because she was telling her life, it fell solidly into domestic and international history.

NEA: In a documentary on such an iconic figure, particularly when a lot of it is first-person interviews with a living person, how do you decide what is the truth?

HERCULES: I think truth is a dubious concept in life. One person’s truth is a different truth for somebody else. You have to trust her telling of her story and her son’s telling of his side of the story and Lou Gossett’s [who is also in the film]. I don’t think it’s for us to determine who is a hundred percent accurate or not. We did our due diligence, of course, with researching the story…. The historical context of these things was very important to us, to give the audience a little bit of a context. So [these stories] would be placed in a sense of history instead of just in a vacuum of history. My personal feeling is there’s no such thing as true objectivity. We all come to the table with some of our own baggage and some of our own perspective, and we try to be as faithful as we can to the story and to the truth. But everything is a decision: where you set up the camera, what day you decide to do the interview, what questions you ask, all those things are subjective. We could’ve asked a hundred other questions, but we chose to ask certain questions of Dr. Angelou, because those are the things we wanted to focus on.

COBURN-WHACK: I think essentially all history is revisionist. Whoever tells the story is going to tell it from their frame of reference and their point of view; they don’t have a choice…. As far as accuracy is concerned, I’ve never found it. I don’t understand what it is. I think one of [Maya Angelou’s] quotes is, “You can tell the truth and the facts are two different things.” You can tell people the places when and the people who, but what is the truth? If you look at it, some people will say Columbus discovered America, and some people will say, well, we were here; what are you talking about? I think what we had to do was excavate her life as best as we could and then understand that, at 80-something years old, the way you talk about your mother is different than you did at 16 and at 40. What’s true? So there are some passages in the film where she may start a scene when she’s in her 60s, finish it when she’s in her 80s, and we have some audio from when she was in her 50s. And you comb that through; that becomes her truth. But if you went to each of those isolated places to unravel that particular part of the story, you might get a different story then what we got. I think that that is just a conundrum of filmmaking and dealing with a subject, a human being, versus subject matter. You’re dealing with a person as opposed to dealing with broad strokes of racism or the women’s movement, but because you’re dealing with a person, how racism and the women’s movement affects them also becomes part of the story.

NEA: I know it took five years to complete this particular film. What keeps you going on a long project like this one?

HERCULES: What kept me going was the story itself. It was just such an incredible, rich, and wonderful story that I personally never wavered. I knew it was going to be a great film. I knew that we had the right team to make the film, that having an exclusive on her story was an amazing gift, and she was amazing when we did those interviews with her. It was, of course, very sad when she passed in the middle of the process, devastating to us. So we took a hit there, but we kept going because we knew she wanted us to make a great film. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. If we were going to be maybe the only people really to make this film, we had to make the greatest film we could possibly make. I personally felt a huge responsibility to pull everything out of myself to make the best film I could…. Rita and I and our whole team, we put everything we had into it. But it was a joy. It wasn’t like it was drudgery. It seemed like [five years] went by very fast, actually.

COBURN-WHACK: I think that one of the things you realize when you’re doing a film, again, on a subject versus subject matter, a person, what you really realize is you’re dealing with another person’s soul. You’re dealing with their life. You’re dealing with everything that they can bring to the story as well. You get a sense of purpose and a mission in trying to do the best you can just for the sake of the person…. It was an awful responsibility, and that kept me going, that it was a story that was real to her, and it was real to so many people…. I think that [because] it took us five years, it moved all of the casual out of it. If somebody had given us 18 months and we had to be done, it would’ve had to be a different film. If somebody gave us all the money in one fell swoop, it would’ve been a different film. But it takes what it takes, and it is your blessing to have opportunity. Now, of course, we had to do other things in between some of this, but I don’t think there was a day during that period once we got started that we didn’t think about this film and live and figure out who we were going to talk to, what we said, what we didn’t say, how we could delve deeper into the archives. As Bob said, when we lost her on May 28th of 2014, she had not seen any of the film. She would’ve only—according to American Masters and the way that we make films—been able to do a fact check; she couldn’t tell us to do this or do that with it anyway. But it was just the thought that now she was gone, we couldn’t go back to her. We couldn’t ask her, “Talk a little bit more about this; talk a little bit more about that.” We had what we had. And I think that what we wanted to make sure was that this film would hold. I look at films like Karen Thorsen’s James Baldwin film, The Price of the Ticket…. I went to see it, and it was as fresh as it was 30 years ago; it held. I think that was our goal inside of our film as filmmakers. If we got this blessing to make this first film, then we wanted to make sure that it would hold.

NEA: As you were diving into Maya Angelou’s life and learning about her, what did you learn about yourselves as artists? What’s the most important thing that you took away for your own craft?

HERCULES: It was unbelievably impressive to me the sheer amount of work she did and the quality of the work she did and the variety and multiple disciplines she worked in. That was inspirational to me. Sometimes you think you can only do so much, but it’s inspirational to see somebody who really threw herself into her work and was fearless in doing this amazing array of work as well. The second thing that I got out of her, that I was inspired by, really, was her ability to forgive. Her strong belief in reconciliation was very powerful, and it had an impact on me for sure in thinking about things. Especially at the time period we’re living in now, the idea that the film has come out right now is significant to me, because we are in a very divisive time, certainly one of the most divisive times I’ve ever experienced in my life. To think about her words and her writings and her vision is very healing, I think, in our society, and I only wish she were still alive to have that powerful voice of reason and reconciliation and healing. So that’s what I have taken away from her story—that it’s very inspirational to all of us to think about how we can be better people in this very divisive time.

COBURN-WHACK: We tried many beginnings [for the film], and then we found a statement that she made to some program at the BBC. It was, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary that you encounter defeat so that you know who you are.” That was really the truth of the film, and it became my truth as I did the film, and it became a reckoning to me in a different way than I maybe had heard it before. I knew that I was encountering defeats with this film, whether they were small, whether they were big, the larger culture of what’s happening with the film industry, #OscarsSoWhite, racism and gender issues…. [Maya Angelou’s story] was: I’ve been abused; I have to keep going. I’ve been discriminated against; I’ve got to keep going. I’m having problems being a mother; I’ve got to keep going. I can’t find anybody to have a long-term love relationship with that can appreciate me for me; I’ve got to keep going. And so that encountering defeat and not being defeated I think resonates with me and with everybody who watches the film…. Honestly, it built a lot of confidence for both of us to tell this story, because this is a big story. Once you can tell the big story, you kind of think. okay, what you got next? I can do this.

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