For a fortnight in May Melbourne holds its annual Human Rights Arts and Film festival. Through contemporary film, music and fine art this powerful exhibit aims to engage and educate its audience on human rights issues, both past and present. This year, one of the anticipated features all the way from The Sundance Film Festival was Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack's documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise about the heroic and tumultuous life of the great activist and poet.
The film paints the portrait of a woman of undeniable power and elegance. Running chronologically, the film begins with her early years as a victim of racism, abuse and neglect. Raped by her step-father at the age of 8, we learn how this horrible history began to shape one of America's greatest writers by formally stealing her voice. After Angelou spoke out about her rape, her abuser was consequently murdered shortly after being released from police custody, and the traumatised child, unable to process this horror, believed that her very words had killed a man. The girl refused to speak for 5 years, already aware of the power of her own voice.
It is a shock to hear of Angelou's muted years as so much of her later influence stems from her words. The very name of her iconic novel, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings highlights this. As the film continues we learn that it is her outspokenness that stood defiant against injustice and inspired generations of writers, musicians and activists. It is her voice that can both bring an audience to tears and command a room.
Coburn Whack and Hercules have managed to capture Angelou's strength and compassion which greatly influenced black America. She became an icon for aspiring African American stars such as Oprah and Alfre Woodard, and even affected the lives of bad-boy, Tupac Shakur and funny-man, Dave Chapelle. The movie highlights a life of resilience and creative passion during troubled times, bringing the audience to the edge of their seats and the verge of tears.