When a friend sits down with author Maya Angelou, as historian Nell Painter does in "And Still I Rise: Maya Angelou," on WHMM (Channel 32) at 10 p.m. Sunday, the results are a warm, intimate portrait of a 20th-century black woman.
This is not a study of the most-read black woman writer in the world -- a status Angelou mentions off-handedly in the show -- with a catalogue of books and poems, their dates and critical reception. It does not even contain an excerpt from a reading by Angelou, a highly entertaining and inspiring event. This hour is a conversation. Its intention is to give a glimpse of a celebrity behind the public image and the result is an intimate intrusion into the dynamics between two women, friends so long they don't have to move off the couch for hours.
The landscape of "Maya" is vast. The show starts with Angelou, now in her mid-fifties, discussing how as a child she didn't think white people were real. It quickly moves to a clip from "Birth of a Nation," a film that Angelou feels reflected a central problem of this century. "There's a white man in black face acting out the white male fantasy of black male sexual prowess . We are all victims of this mania," she says. Then the conversation moves to the relationships of black women and white women, the experiences of Afro-Americans living in Africa, the treatment of black artists in Hollywood and the 1960s civil rights movement.
Though dialogue is the form, the effects are not wooden. Part of Angelou's power is that she can take her smoky, hypnotic voice and get to the truth behind the facts -- and there is quite a discourse in the show about truth and facts. Woven into the narrative are film clips of ceremonies surrounding Ghana's independence in 1957, actor Sidney Poitier accepting his Academy Award in 1964 and the 1963 March on Washington. And Angelou is also spontaneous, bursting into song, shedding some tears or pulling another writer's words out of her memory to complete a point.
The most interesting moments are when Painter raises questions about the burdens of fame, the duality of the public and private person and the pecularities of friendship. "The real payment" of fame, Angelou says, "is that people enjoy it the artist's work and . . . then the artist is made larger and dares a little bit more."
In looking at celebrity, Painter pursues the special place of famous blacks, who are often viewed as representatives of the entire race and pushed forward as a spokespersons. "It is a burden, a serious burden but that is not to say it is not a welcome addition," says Angelou. "It is thrust upon us to speak, sometimes ineptly, sometimes falsely, sometimes pompously, occasionally truthfully. When a people are so in need of heroes and 'sheroes,' one would be not quite responsible not to try to be some of those things." And, from the corner of her couch in this show, Angelou does so -- in her vintage philosophical way.