Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4th, 1928, world renowned and legendary author, poet, actress, professor, singer, dancer, playwright, director, and activist Dr. Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86 on the morning of Wednesday, May 28th in her home in North Carolina, according to a CNN report.
Considered a “Renaissance woman,” “trailblazer,” and cultural “pioneer,” Angelou is remembered most for her books and poetry. Some of these works include her most famous poems “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” (in her 1978 third volume of poetry titled And Still I Rise) and her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou is also remembered for her participation in the civil rights movement and fight for equality as she worked with many civil rights heroes including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X.
Although most known for her written works, Angelou has contributed greatly to theatre and film through both performance and directing. Growing up, Angelou studied dance and drama at the young age of 14 in San Francisco. Angelou toured Europe soon after in the opera production “Porgy and Bess” as a single mother at the age of 17.
Angelou had a passion for theatre and film, but access to the industry wasn’t that easy. In an excerpt from an interview with former Black Film Center/Archive Director and Professor Emeritus of African American and African Diaspora Studies Dr. Audrey T. McCluskey, Dr. Maya Angelou discussed some of her experiences and issues she encountered in the film industry:
McCluskey: You’ve been a pioneer, especially for black women – directing, acting, screenwriting, and even scoring the music. You did such a wonderful job for Down in the Delta. It makes me wonder why you haven’t directed more films.
Angelou: Really the door wasn’t open. I did try to open it in 1972 by doing Georgia, Georgia but I wasn’t allowed to direct it. I wrote it and I wrote the music. But I wasn’t allowed to direct it. A Swedish man who had never even shaken hands with a black person directed it. He had no idea of the nuances that I wanted, that I had written…. It was just not the film I meant at all.
McCluskey: Did that dishearten you to some extent?
Angelou: Well that did and I seemed to get no other offers. I did go out to 20th Century Fox and I was their first Black female writer/producer. But I didn’t get a chance to direct Sister, Sister. I wanted so much to direct it, starring Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Cash, and Irene Cara.
Later in the interview, discussing her directing work on Down in the Delta, Angelou shared her cinematic sensibility:
McCluskey: You have also said that for you the camera was your pen. How do you go about transferring what I think are essentially your literary sensibilities to film, which is more of an ensemble?
Angelou: Since I can’t do that poetic prose which sets a scene on my yellow pad and in my books, I have to use the camera to help to view it and to know that there is fresh air here and the smell of grass. The sun has reached this level in the sky. The things I can do with my pen, I have to make the camera do it. Phoebe the painter, one of my favorite painters, calls it negative space. So that she will paint a line or half a face and that leaves the viewer to add in to see where the rest of that face would go.
McCluskey: Did this come about by you actually saying certain things to the cinematographer?
Angelou: Oh yes, absolutely. We work hand and glove. I’d say this scene, it takes place in the late afternoon and I want it to look hot. Even if I see no one with his jacket off or shirt rolled up, I want the viewer to know it is hot in that house. So I may have to go out on the porch and catch the sun and the shape of the sunlight over the banister to go into the house and through the screen door. You see?
Despite some of the barriers, Angelou’s influence on and her passion for film and theatre and can be remembered and witnessed in some of the following plays and films:
- Angelou wrote the screenplay and directed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Angelou became the first African American woman to have her script filmed. The film was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was entered into the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival in 1973.
- In 1973, Angelou was nominated for a Tony Award in for her performance in Jerome Kilty’s Broadway play “Look Away.”
- Directed by Fielder Cook, Angelou’s 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was transformed into a made-for-television film in 1979 on CBS.
- In the 1993 film Poetic Justice, featuring music stars Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, Angelou’s words and poems, such as “Phenomenal Woman,” were recited throughout the film by Jackson’s character Justice. Angelou also contributed by making a cameo appearance in the film.
- Angelou directed the 1998 film Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard, Wesley Snipes, Loretta Devine, Esther Rolle and Al Freeman, Jr. This would be the only film Angelou directed that was “mainstream.”
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the highest civilian honor when he presented her with the Medal of Freedom. Prior to that in 2000, former president Bill Clinton awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Arts, and she was requested by Clinton to write a poem for his presidential inauguration in 1993.
Thank you Dr. Maya Angelou for sharing your gifts, talent, and wisdom with the world.