Worshipful and awed — that would describe the look in comedian Dave Chappelle’s eyes during an exchange with Maya Angelou, excerpted in the new documentary about the late writer-performer-activist, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” It would also describe the film itself.
If this adulatory “American Masters” production elides certain chapters of Angelou’s biography, it nonetheless offers ample evidence of her commanding intensity and of her importance as an unwavering voice of the black experience. In new interviews, conducted during the last years of her life (she died in 2014 at 86), her elegance is magnificent, her self-possession as formidable as ever.
Through a rich selection of archival material, directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack trace the traumas and triumphs of an extraordinary life, a trajectory that Angelou explored in seven autobiographies, beginning with the career-making “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The filmmakers illuminate Angelou’s political engagement, including her work with Martin Luther King and years as a journalist in Ghana. They highlight lesser-known aspects of her stage career — notably her role in the original off-Broadway cast of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” an ensemble that included Louis Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson, both of whom contribute deeply felt commentary to the film.
There’s no mention of the sex-trade jobs that Angelou herself wrote about, no critical analysis of her writing. Everyone in the film who recalls her, often with tears in their eyes, is there to praise, not to question. There’ll be more complex portraits of this complex Renaissance woman. Until then, the celebratory “And Still I Rise” is a testament to her singularly regal self-invention and the soul-searching that touched countless lives.
‘Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise’
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; AMC Norwalk 20, Norwalk