It was the opening night of the 12th annual Montreal International Black Film Festival brainchild of Fabienne Colas and as usual it began with a Career Achievement Award given to Canadian director Clement Virgo. Though he is younger than previous winners like Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, Clement Virgo has already amassed an impressive career. Already at the age of 50 he is considered one of this country’s best feature film directors. He has directed both television and feature films. Having directed episodes of The Listener, ReGenesis, The L Word, American Crime, Greenleaf, and the critically acclaimed, The Wire as well as feature films like Lie With Me, Poor Boy’s Game and Love Come Down. Most recently he served as executive producer/director on the multi award-winning mini-series The Book of Negroes.
The opening film of the festival was Maya Angelou and Still I Rise, a documentary about the life of the African American poet, dancer, actress, singer, author, and director. And let’s not forget that she was also an activist. When I start off by saying that this woman led an amazing life until her death in 2014 I am in no way exaggerating. Dr. Maya Angelou led quite a life. Another amazing thing is that this documentary directed by Bob Hercules (Senator Obama Goes to Africa, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance) and Rita Coburn Whack (first film), who was in attendance at the screening and participated in a Q&A afterwards, is the first one made about Maya Angelou.
At almost 2 hours long, it does run a little long, but there are precious few unnecessary moments. What it does best is allow the woman herself to tell her own life story on film. The backbone of the film is the many interviews from different points of her life about her life. Maya Angelou had a commanding presence when she spoke and it was not just because she was an imposing 6 feet tall. It had to do with the sharpness of her mind and command of the English language.
You clung to every word as she spoke about her and her brother Bailey being raised by their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. There she was introduced to racism and violence. Racism came in the form of the white inhabitants of the small town and the visits by the KKK. Violence was introduced when she was raped at the age of 7 by a boyfriend of her mother’s. After that man was found murdered the youngster felt responsible and so she was mute for 5 years in order not to risk being responsible for anyone else’s death.
During that time she began to read voraciously. Even committed to memory full Shakespeare plays and Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. This razor sharp mind was the birth place of all that came later. She began as a dancer then moved on to singing and acting. Not allowing herself to be boxed in she moved on to political activism which brought her in contact with people like Martin Luthar King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Her biggest (?) impact came as a writer. Whether it be her poetry, novels or autobiographies they all left a huge mark upon American society. She became one of the foremost voices of the black community in the United States.
Though the documentary is about a woman who involved herself in almost every form of art known to man (did I mention she also wrote songs with Quincy Jones for B.B. King?) there is nothing artistic about this film. It is really straightforward and to the point with no frills. Using just stock footage and interviews with the woman herself, her son Guy, Oprah Winfrey, both of the Clintons, John Singleton, Cicely Tyson, and Alfre Woodard the documentary does its best to match the spirit of its subject. It was a long, complicated and impactful life and that does shine through. Her voice is captured.