By: Sarah Hicks
On Feb. 21, PBS premiered And Still I Rise, a documentary on the life of Maya Angelou. Using mostly archival footage and interviews with the author herself, this documentary provided an opportunity to learn about the author’s life largely in her own words, from her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, through her years in New York and Ghana, up to her death in 2014.
It’s a beautifully crafted and engaging documentary, and the archival footage of her early years as a dancer and singer are wonderful to watch. As someone who has only ever known of Angelou as an older adult, it was especially fun to watch her performances as a young woman. Given that the documentary focuses on her whole life, it’s easy to see how multi-faceted and multi-talented Angelou was.
However, the documentary largely eschews Angelou’s work in order to focus on her life, despite being named after her third volume of poetry (and one of her most famous poems), which was published in 1978. While it highlights certain landmark moments (such as the publishing of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her reading at Bill Clinton’s inauguration) and includes many clips of her reading her poems, the documentary is far less interested in educating those who may not be familiar with Angelou’s work.
To that end, issues that this particular branch of the ALA may concern itself with (such as censorship) are not really mentioned. Her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is still regularly included on banned and challenged book lists, despite being published almost 50 years ago. Among the reasons for the book’s many challenges are sexual content, violence, profanity, homosexuality, and “anti-white” sentiments. Speaking of these frequent challenges to her work, Angelou once remarked, “I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned. And many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read.”
This view is unsurprising in light of the interviews given in the documentary (and elsewhere), in which Angelou credits reading as one of the things that allowed her to find her voice again after being sexually assaulted at age 7. More than that, however, it is clear from the documentary that Angelou was an incredibly warm, compassionate, and fiercely intelligent woman. Interviews with close friends, which may be some of the most worthwhile footage to fans emphasizes these facts about the author. Her son said what his mother most strongly imparted to him was “a love of justice, a love of doing what’s right.” This reinforces how much Angelou was a woman with strong morals who lived them every moment.
And Still I Rise may not give much insight into Angelou’s numerous works, but it certainly gives us a fascinating look at an amazing woman and her well-lived life. The documentary can be streamed on PBS, purchased at Amazon, or rented from your local library.
Sarah Hicks is a current MLIS student at the University of Pittsburgh, and works in a local public library. She has long been passionate about issues regarding intellectual freedom, and believes that these issues are becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially those related to privacy, surveillance, and censorship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as certain stereotypes about librarians are not wholly untrue, she is both an avid reader (of many genres) and a total cat lady. Sarah can sometimes be found @exactlibrarian.