After Surviving Funding Shortfall, Maya Angelou Documentary Heads to PBS

Coming soon to public television is And Still I Rise, the first documentary that chronicles the life story of the phenomenal Pulitzer Prize winning poet, author, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. The film spans Angelou’s life, from her birth in 1928 to her death in 2014. It features interviews by family and friends, including appearances by Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Cicely Tyson, and Guy Johnson (Angelou’s son).

“Dr. Angelou has become a global symbol of peace, humility, and freedom—but parts of her story are not well known,” according to a statement on the film’s official website. “The Maya Angelou Documentary will reflect on how the events of history, culture, and the arts shaped Dr. Angelou’s life and how she, in turn, helped shape our own worldview through her autobiographical literature and activism.”

Untold Life Aspects

Filmmakers and Co-directors, Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, are hoping to shed light on the untold aspects of her life and educate audiences about her incredible journey. “As friends from Dr. Angelou’s inner circle, we have been granted remarkable and unmatched access to Dr. Angelou’s life,” they explain on the site.

The film’s Executive Producers include Reuben Cannon, the renowned casting director credited with launching Oprah’s acting career, and Chris Gardner, the CEO of HappyNess and author of The Pursuit of Happyness. This is the first film Gardner has produced. “Dr. Angelou and I had a dear, dear relationship,” Gardner told “Years ago, I asked her, ‘If you could only read 100 books in your whole lifetime, what should they be?’ She wrote me a list. The funny thing is, the first 35 books were all hers.”

Funding Challenges and Oprah

Four years in the making, while the film received funding from such groups as The Ford Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, it struggled with financing. Last October, the filmmakers launched a Kickstarter campaign. They noted on the campaign’s page additional funding was needed to pay licensing fees on archival footage and technical edits. They set out to raise $150,000 by December 1. The campaign exceeded its goal, with 1,220 backers pledging $153,346 to help bring the project to life.

News of the film’s crowdfunding gave way to shocked fans asking why billionaire Oprah Winfrey did not finance the film. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, filmmakers told TheWrap  there was an ethical dilemma “that forbade them from approaching Oprah– a longtime, flag-bearer for Angelou’s writing and messages of social justice.”

The film made its debut at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, but will head to public television this fall.

The documentary will air as part of PBS’ American Masters series. According to TheWrap, “Producers had to abide by the rules of public television.” Coburn Whack elaborates, “The people who are in your film, can’t fund it,” pointing out the obvious, as Winfrey is an onscreen participant.