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Filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack talk about the making of Maya Angelou documentary

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Maya Angelou 01Last night, a Fort Myers Film Festival audience was treated to a showing of Maya Angelou and Still I Rise inside the neoclassical revival building that is home to the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. The film is remarkable for many reasons. It provides insight into a transcendent personality whose writings and life have and will continue to Rita, Bob and Eric Dinspire people of all races, genders and creeds for generations to come. It engenders discussion about pressing socio-political questions of both yesteryear and today. It fosters thought about the role and value of literature, writing and education in creating the people each of us are and become. The film is a tour de force of research, archival film footage and riveting Rita, Bob and Eric Ainterviews spanning more than 80 years of a life well lived that tracked the major movements in our country’s history and its all-too-tenous relations with its African-American population. And after the screening, filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack had one more gift for the FMff audience. They gave the following in-depth, behind-the-curtain glimpse into how this important documentary was made:

Bob Hercules ABOB HERCULES: “Rita and I didn’t know each other before we started this film. I knew of Maya Angelou. I was a huge fan. I had done some research and was surprised that someone hadn’t already done this film. A mutual friend introduced us. Rita had worked with Dr. Angelou and she had the same idea.”

RITA COBURN WHACK: “I found Maya Angelou when I was a little girl. I’d go to the library, but for me, personally, that meant Pippy Longstocking, Rita Coburn Whack BEncyclopedia Brown and Little House on the Prairie. I didn’t find any little black kids, but then I saw this book with this black woman on the cover [Why the Caged Bird Sings] and I’m like ‘Whoa,’ and when I read it, I was embarrassed and wondered why she told that story. Today, we talk about segregation and racism, but back then, people didn’t talk about such things. I thought she was telling secrets of the community.

“Later on, I became a writer myself and interviewed her for Rita Coburn Whack DChicago Public Radio. After that, I was a radio producer. (I’m ambidextrous. I do radio and television) and I worked for Ms. Winfrey on Oprah Radio. Oprah said ‘Go to [Maya’s] home and get the story. She’s too old to come out and I want her to feel comfortable. So don’t take her to the studio. Go to her home.’ I would go to her home once a month, either in Harlem or Winston, Salem. When I got there she was as generous as Oprah and said ‘You’re room’s upstairs. You won’t need a hotel.’ I was not gonna turn that down. So we met once a month from 2006 to 2010 and I would go get four stories and I would have a weekly show. During that time President Clinton Rita Coburn Whack Cwould call. Chris Rock would stop by. Sonya Sanchez would come. Brooks & Dunn would come. She was a big country music fan. We didn’t have that in [the documentary], but she did a couple of their music videos. She opened for Martina McBride. I would get on the bus and ride with her. And so, as I’m doing the radio show, radio is about the ear and theater of the mind. Visually, take Thriller, every time we hear it, we see Michael Jackson. But every time you read a book or you listen to radio, you develop the pictures. So I’m sitting across from her listening to her talk to all these people, and I go ‘This is a documentary.’

Rita Coburn Whack G“Documentarians are frustrated historians. We don’t have time to read all the books. We don’t think you do either. So we show you history in a documentary quickly and efficiently. We’re like the original music video people. Maya Angelou’s life spans history from 1928 to 2014. So what happened is she’s born in Stamps, Arkansas in 1928. Because of the Jim Crow laws in the South, there was a great migration to St. Louis and she’s part of that. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Oakland. She is part of the pre-movement to the Bob Hercules BCivil Rights movement in New York. She actually lives in these places and it occurs to me that her life is tracking history. It’s tracking the African-American movement – colored to Negro to African-American. This is a documentary. And Bob and I decide we’ll do this together.”

BOB HERCULES: “And that involved a little over four years of work.”

RITA COBURN WHACK: “It started out as a 90-minute film. It turned out to be an hour and 53 Bob Hercules Cminutes and could have easily been three hours.”

BOB HERCULES: “This turned out to be such an enormous story. The strategy became to tell some stories in depth and not tackle other parts of her life which would rob the overall story of its dramatic impact. So there are obviously a lot of parts of her life that are not in the film. Quite frankly, some of it was organic. As we delved into the story, we discovered more footage and things we hadn’t known, and things came out in interviews that we hadn’t known before. The Rita, Bob and Eric Ddocumentary filmmaker just has to follow the path. If you’re a control freak, don’t get into the business, because you rarely have any control of where a documentary is going to go.”

RITA COBURN WHACK: “You have to start with a plan because you have to write a treatment and you have to determine who you’re going to interview. But you don’t always know what they’re Rita Coburn Whack Kgoing to say, so you have to be willing to follow leads. For example, when I heard Maya Angelou say that Rosa Guy’s screamed “Murderers” at the U.N., I called the researcher and said, ‘There’s a tape of everything that happens at the U.N. Find it.’ And so now we were able to tell that story. That’s not a well-known story. So many people know who Maya Angelou is that you have this sense that you know her, but what we wanted to do was show her as a woman, to show her Rita, Bob and Eric Eas a mother, to show her in other aspects that you might not have known about her. So in filmmaking, you start with a plan, but you have to let the spirit of the story lead you.

“If you’re doing the Civil Rights movement, then you’re dealing with various people within that topic. When you’re dealing with a person, you have to deal with the humanity of that person. How Rita Coburn Whack Fother people feel about them. So one of the techniques that you may have noticed, we never used a narrator because once you’ve heard [Maya Angelou’s] voice, who could narrate for her? But the complication was that when she passed, we couldn’t go back and get her to voice over and fill in the blanks. So it caused us to do deeper archival research to find things we could put together.

“What we found most in this process is that the story started to tell itself. Build it and it will come. And we really felt her spirit in the story. We took it to [Maya Angelou’s son] Guy Johnston. Now the family had no editorial say, although they would Rita Coburn Whack Ltell us if we got a fact wrong. I sat at the table as it was being played, and he laughed, he cried, and when it was over, he said ‘Bravo.’ And that made us understand that while all of us lost an icon on May 28, 2014, he was the only person who lost a mother. And so that was as close as we could come to getting the blessing of what this was.”

BOB HERCULES: “My hope for the film is that it’s a source of inspiration because Dr. Angelou was a huge source of inspiration for me and for millions of other people. And in the current times that we’re in, we need Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules Cpeople like that. We need inspirational figures. We need people who are voices of reason, voices of forgiveness and reconciliation. It doesn’t seem to me that we have many people like that right now. So I hope that in our small way through the film we can continue spreading her message. That’s why Rita and I are so focused on going out to all these places and showing the film. Not just film festivals, but all kinds of places. So that’s our hope.”

RITA COBURN WHACK: “She had a certain decorum and civility that we are at times missing today. So that’s a plan. We will be touring the country at film festivals Rita, Bob and Eric Bthrough October and you can follow the film’s progress on the film’s website as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Then we’ll do a theatrical run in five cities, New York, Chicago, L.A. Washington and Atlanta. Then we’ll put it into the educational sector.”

For a more complete discussion of the making and content of this documentary, please click here for Amy Goodman’s interview of Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack IRita Coburn Whack on February 16, 2016 for Democracy Now!, an independent online global news service.

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