“Maya Angelou, the memoirist and poet whose landmark book of 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—which describes in lyrical, unsparing prose the author’s girlhood in the Jim Crow South—was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman to reach a wide general readership, died on Wednesday in her home,” reports Margalit Fox for the New York Times. “She was 86 and lived in Winston-Salem, N.C.”
Though she’ll be remembered first and foremost for her poetry—collections include Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971), And Still I Rise (1978), Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987) and I Shall Not Be Moved (1990) and she read “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration—Angelou was also a professor, singer, dancer and actress who also wrote for film and television.
“She spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco,” notes CNN. “After dropping out at age 14, she become the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor…. While the 17-year-old single mother waited tables to support her son, she acquired a passion for music and dance. She toured Europe in the mid-1950s with Porgy and Bess, an opera production. In 1957, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and also played a queen in The Blacks, an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet…. Angelou was also one of the first black women film directors. Her work on Broadway has been nominated for Tony Awards.”
Earlier this year at Dangerous Minds, Martin Schneider posted the “most powerful sketch” from The Richard Pryor Special?, which is saying quite a lot, as the show was one of the most daring to air in the late 1970s. In the final four minutes of the sketch, Angelou delivers a soliloquy that “is a masterpiece of pain, understanding, despair, and forgiveness, a howl of anguish by the woman who loves him, the man whose poverty-driven tribulations and shame-fueled alcoholism have, it’s fair to say, ruined her life. It’s a bit of trenchant kitchen-sink racial commentary—I have never seen anything else like it on American TV, and don’t ever expect to see anything like it on American TV in the future.” Here:
Just five days ago, Angelou tweeted: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
Update: George Plimpton‘s interview with Angelou ran in the Fall 1990 issue of the Paris Review.
Updates, 5/31: Both Danny Miller at Cinephiled and Brandon Latham at Indiewire briefly survey Angelou’s career in film and television. Miller: “In 1972, Angelou wrote the screenplay (and the musical score!) for a Swedish film called Georgia, Georgia, the story of an African American singer (played by Diana Sands) who meets and falls in love with an American Vietnam War deserter while she is performing in Stockholm. Reviews of the film praised Sands performance and lauded Angelou for telling a story that shows how ‘a person’s identity comes not from his color, clothing or position but from his need to be accepted and loved as an individual.’ Surprisingly, this was Angelou’s only filmed screenplay though she did write several TV movies including a 1979 adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Esther Rolle and the 1982 movie Sister, Sister with Diahann Carroll and Paul Winfield.”
Latham: “Airing in 1977, Roots is widely considered the most popular television mini-series of all time. Starring in two episodes, Angelou played Kunta Kinte’s (Levar Burton) African grandmother, the matriarch of the line whose descendants are followed throughout the series…. In 1998, at the age of 70, she made her feature directorial debut with Down in the Delta starring Alfre Woodard.”
Joe Leydon gave Delta a positive review in Variety and recalls that “Roger Ebert gave it a rave. Better still, he and Gene Siskel both gave it a thumbs-up on their TV show. (Take a look here—their joint appraisal begins around the 4:15 mark.) Despite all that praise, however, the late, great lady never made another movie. I guess she was too busy making history.”