Back in 2002, LA-based poetry legend Wanda Coleman wrote such a witheringly critical review of Maya Angelou’s autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven that it sent shockwaves through the literary community, got Coleman dropped from a high-profile panel discussion on Angelou, and has gone down in lit lore as a scalding takedown of an icon. The review absolutely is merciless but the truth (and truthfulness) of its content, as is often the case, is more complex than legend now suggests. At the time of Coleman’s death in 2013, David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic, wrote of her review and the fallout from it:
“Coleman, of course, was very much [Angelou’s] literary descendant, a poet and essayist who also wrote scathingly about race and class. And yet, she lamented in her review, Angelou had regressed in this, her sixth memoir, to “empty phrases and sweeping generalities.”
“To read Coleman’s review now is to marvel, in some ways, at its fairness; she goes out of her way to praise [Angelou’s landmark “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings],” as well as Angelou’s 1986 book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” and to note her role in Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural.”
“I’ve long believed that the most vivid negative reviews are written out of love, or more accurately love disappointed, that the response is a reflection of how important the writing ought to be. This, I’d suggest, is what motivated Coleman: the desire to take Angelou seriously, not as legend but rather as an essential voice in the community.”
Watching the new documentary And Still I Rise, co-directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, their love and respect for Angelou comes through in every frame. The nearly two hour film (which doesn’t feel that long at all) is engrossing, insightful (about Angelou as a woman and artist; about America and race; about the interconnectedness of Black struggles around the world), often very funny, and a fantastic primer for anyone not familiar with the life and work of Ms. Angelou. But by the time it ends, you wish that any of the stellar names called upon to discuss her stranger-than-fiction life and groundbreaking work (names that include Nikki Giovanni, Common, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, and more) had been as intellectually rigorous and honest as Coleman – that they’d taken the artist and her work seriously enough to push past the hagiographic impulse that too many documentarians and scholars now mistake for respect.
Angelou’s life is so much larger than life that it humbles fiction. Hercules and Whack meticulously weave together a narrative that, even when familiar to longtime fans and students, can still leave you slack-jawed: the trauma of being sent away as a toddler (with her older brother) to live with her grandmother when her parents relationship fizzled; the rape at age seven by her mother’s boyfriend, and the subsequent fall into a year’s long muteness; her initiation into consensual sex (which left her hilariously underwhelmed); a career as a singer and actress that carried her around the world, introducing her to James Baldwin; her work with and for both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; her brief stint as a prostitute; her reluctant step into the literary world that she would help revolutionize with her writing about Black womanhood in ways no one had before; her hard-won status as a literary force. It’s staggering.
Filled with photos, excerpts from interviews spanning decades, film and news clips, the film’s archival footage alone makes it well worth checking And I Rise out. (And there’s a welcome sense of humor at play, demonstrated in the inclusion of comedian David Alan Grier’s goodhearted sendup of Angelou in a comedy sketch commercial for Butterfinger candy bar.) What the film says about being Black and a woman, a mother and sole provider, an artist and an activist, all enrich conversations that are age-old and timeless. And coming at this moment – in the wake of documentaries on artist/activist Nina Simone; in the midst of a reinvigorated civil rights movement – Rise is a welcome, needed addition to the multiple conversations in which it fits. But the non-stop praise-songs and the lack of serious critical consideration and evaluation of Ms. Angelou’s work push Rise into being a work of hagiography – one that is illuminating and informative but, paradoxically, withholds the respect a true and serious artist is due, and only comes through unblinking critical analysis.
Here’s Wanda Coleman’s biting review.
And Still I Rise opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco this Friday.