Meet The Woman Behind The World's First Maya Angelou Documentary
Words: Ev Petgrave
The late poet and humanitarian is getting a feature-length film thanks to a dear friend and industry maven.
Rita Coburn Whack has a passion for documenting untold narratives. It’s a passion that has put her in the graces of some of America’s most well-known history makers, including that of her current muse, Dr. Maya Angelou, and it’s why she’s working so hard on bringing the world’s first feature-length documentary on the late poet and humanitarian to life.
In Coburn Whack and co-director Bob Hercules’ forthcoming The Maya Angelou Documentary, Angelou—and several of the late poet’s friends and colleagues, such as Oprah Winfrey, Common, President Bill Clinton—share aspects of her life that will educate and inspire generations young and old. But with a life as dynamic as Dr. Angelou’s, deciding what to share was no easy feat.
“We wanted to tell some important parts of history that people may not have known—it’s a challenge to determine what to tell and what not to tell” Coburn Whack says. “Overall, I hope that what we’ll do is encourage people to find out more about her life, and also help keep her legacy alive.”
The documentary will surely help keep Dr. Angelou’s legacy alive, but first Coburn-Whack and her co-filmmakers need support to bring the film to completion. The film is due to air on PBS in 2016, but needs to raise $150,000 to assist with licensing costs for archives, plus final editing, color corrections, and mixing. (As of press time, the Kickstarter had raised more than $63,000.)
“The public is missing her voice and we want to get it back out there as soon as possible,” Coburn-Whack says. “You have to keep her legacy out there so people continue to remember.”
Coburn-Whack told us more about what we can expect from the documentary, and shares some of her fondest memories of Dr. Angelou.
What was it like when you first met her?
Wow, the first time I met her I was actually a producer and host of a radio show for Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ. My producer and I took all of our gear [to interview her]. Maya came into the room and I had all my questions and knew where I wanted to go with this interview.
I announced to her “Thank you for the interview, I know we only have an hour,” and she said “No we don’t.” I can’t remember if she said we only had 45 minutes or half an hour, but I just thought, “How am I going to make the program from this?” The she said, “But I can guarantee you for the entire time, I will be with you.” And that really put me at ease and taught me a lesson to be present wherever you are. She was 100 percent in the interview—she sang, she recited poetry—and when it was done I forgot that I didn’t have enough. I did have enough. It was just a wonderful experience.
How did the idea of the documentary come to be?
I had been working with Maya as her radio producer for Oprah Radio, which started in 2006, and Maya was one of my hosts. I would go down to her home in North Carolina, or to her place in Harlem, once a month to gather four stories so we could have a once-a-week radio program. She would insist that I stay at her home, so I would spend three to four days at her home every month.
I was there as she cooked and as she entertained. [As I gathered these stories], I realized I was listening to history. After Oprah Radio ended in 2010, I continued to work with her; we did three Black History Month programs [2011-2013] and I realized that I was listening to more than Black history, I was listening to world history.
I thought, we need to make a documentary. At the same time there was a friend at Harpo and she knew Bob Hercules who had been doing documentaries. He came to her and said “You know, there’s never been a documentary done on Maya Angelou.” My friend directed him to me, so we met and started to put the whole idea together.
I asked Maya about it and she said she’d do it. I know it was a hard thing for her to do because when I asked her, she was in her eighties. Sometimes as people are getting older, they don’t necessarily want to go back to those memories. You’re taking time from them and you’re taking them back to places, some of them very painful. She agreed to go there—you could see her go back into the time period and relive it for you.
What aspects of her life will the documentary show? How did you decide what to show and what not to show?
We wanted to tell some things that everybody knew, such as Bob Clinton’s inauguration and her young life, and traumas she went through that are known to some generations and not the others.
I don’t think people understood the impact of having a Black woman read a poem at the inauguration. You might not understand that today, but when it was done, it was monumental for all of us. So we have those moments, then we also have the more private and personal moments. Who she was as a person, how she loved, how she understood herself to be in these situations. A lot of people look at someone with a big name like that and they think that they know them or they think that don’t do things like go get the groceries and question what types of relationships they have with their families and the people they love, so we show some of that.
Then we go into little details of relationships she had that we know about, but don’t know how they came about. [For example,] there’s probably few people during that time period who had relationships with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, because they were diametrically opposed to the way they viewed civil rights, and here’s a woman who worked with both of them. That wasn’t something that was happening at the time. The documentary will open up the floodgates for continuing the conversation about some of those things.
What impact has she had on your life before and after meeting her?
I was a little girl who wanted to read and really wanted to write. I lived in a small town outside of Chicago, four blocks by nine blocks, and there were chickens in the town. In order to read, you had to walk down the stairs of the village hall where the jail was to the left and the library was to the right. I remember being 8 or 9 years old, walking several blocks, and then [running] down the stairs to the library because I was afraid.
[One day] I saw Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was the first time that Black people talked about the issues of Black people to me. When I began to read those books, I knew that Black people could tell their own stories. That made me want to be a writer, and it made me want to find out about all the stories that were Black.
The Black race is not monolithic, but when you’re a little kid you don’t know that. You don’t have Black writers telling the stories, what you have is your mother’s story—the part she’ll tell you—then you have your aunt’s story, your friends’ and their mothers’, and you expect everybody to be the same. Then you find out about these lives that take place outside of Chicago and these books open up a world. And I think what Maya Angelou did for me, then and now, was she opened up a world and a way of thinking about things and a way of telling your truth that was not done before.
Think about it. When she did Caged Bird, it was banned because she had the courage to say that sexual abuse occurred. That was in the ‘70s and that was so taboo. A lot of us grabbed our chests and said “Why’d she have to tell that?” That was dirty laundry that most folks didn’t air, but she just kept going with it.
[She also taught me] the ability to tell your story while making sure you were the one that told it. That’s something that women in particular don’t have, and why women have to fight to have a voice. There’s so many things in this world that really say “Shut up. Be quiet. Don’t tell that.” But, she was like “Not only will I tell, I will fight for it, and I’ll fight for everybody.” I felt mothered by her, I felt mentored by her, and it really changed my life to have a relationship with her.
To help fund “The Maya Angelou Documentary,” visit the movie’s Kickstarter page and help spread the word.