Writer/producer/director/novelist Rita Coburn’s acclaimed documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, co-directed with Bob Hercules, was released in 2016, but the film is ever timely in its importance and impact. In an ongoing outreach program, Coburn still travels with the film to schools and community centers, bringing to a wide range of audiences — especially impressionable youngsters — an understanding of the brilliant and inspiring Dr. Angelou, of her empowering story, of the importance of storytelling and of documentary film as the record of essential human history — especially the herstory that hasn’t been taught in schools.
AWFJ met Coburn at the 2019 Ebertfest, where she screened Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, received Ebertfest’s first-ever Icon Award and met with young audiences to discuss Dr. Angelou’s life and legacy, and her own role as documentarian.
Landing the Job
Coburn’s profound and life-changing relationship with Dr. Angelou developed during four years of their working together in a radio program on Oprah Winfrey’s network. Coburn was one of 300 applicants vying for producers’ jobs at Oprah radio. Of the six who were selected, she was the only female and the only one who was black. Once hired and told who the possible show hosts were, she prayed all night to be chosen to work with Dr. Angelou.
Says Coburn, “The others were nervous at the prospect of working with Dr. Angelou. She was older, she was so close to Oprah, she was intimidating. I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ “There was no accident in my being with Maya Angelou. We found each other but we had crossed paths many times, circled and then landed.”
When Coburn got the assignment, Oprah Winfrey advised her not to take Dr. Angelou into a studio, but to record the distinguished poet in her home. Dr. Angelou invited Coburn to stay with her during the recording sessions. And so, “for 4 years, 3-4 days a month, [I was] in her home. We had by that time built a trust. And that led to the documentary.”
When asked what she learned from Dr. Angelou, Coburn says “The whole message that she lived and left for all of us was no matter what happens to you in life, keep going. I got strength from her to tell stories.”
The Maya Angelou film, which premiered at Sundance and appeared on PBS as a part of the American Masters series, weaves together Dr. Angelou’s varied life as a dancer, singer, actor, sex worker, and poet. It reflects Coburn’s understanding of complex stories and how to shape narratives about those whose lives have not been fully reflected in our history books.
“All we have, in the long run, is our stories. It is of vital importance that stories be recorded before the people who lived them are no longer with us. Everyone should be documenting their elders on film or audio. Their stories tell us where we came from and who we are. For black women, people of color and all those who are marginalized, we have not been the writer’s of history. Documentaries and narrative work in our industry is a window to greater understanding of our culture. And, we should be front and center, through and through in telling those stories,” says Coburn.
“Until we have many points of view out in the media and the communications world we have a skewed picture of who we are as a people…. African American people didn’t write the history books. Even in other societies, women didn’t write the books so the stories aren’t there.”
“Maya Angelou used to talk about how the facts and the truth can be two different things. We can talk about dates when something happened that are facts but we may not know the real truth…. Early on, as a student of reading and being in my community I realized that my people were not in the books. I saw them every day but their history wasn’t being told. It does not exist except for the oral histories. So if we don’t talk to older people now, and tell their version of the story then we have a truncated version of history. If you don’t know where you came from then it’s hard to understand where you’re going.”
Her Personal Story
Coburn prefers to tell the stories of others, but her own story began on June 13, 1958, when she was born to Willie E. and Charlie G. Coburn in Harvey, Illinous. She was raised the the suburbs south of Chicago, where she attended Calvin Coolidge Elementary School and, later, Eisenhower Elementary. At Thornridge High School in Dolton, Illinois, she worked on the yearbook and was a member of the “Lassies,” an Irish dance group.
After graduating from high school Coburn attended Illinois State University, where she studied television production. She also studied television production and creative writing at Chicago’s Columbia College before transferring to Northwestern University, where she completed a B.A. in Communication in 1980.
She began her professional career as a news producer on local TV. She went on to produce for the Oprah Winfrey Show, Apollo Live and Walt Disney Productions. Her work has been recognized with Peabody and Emmy awards.
A deeply spiritual person, Coburn told the Chicago Tribune in 2015, “I am in my fourth time going through the Bible from cover to cover, averaging three years each read through. Besides strengthening my beliefs, it is the best written book I’ve ever read, with all styles of prose, poetry, mystery, etc. You read it, and it reads you.”
Teaching Story and Problem Solving
When Coburn is working on a film, she pours all of her knowledge, instinct and energy into the project. She considers documentaries to be “teaching tools” and emphasizes the importance of learning the basic techniques and mechanics of filmmaking. “You learn the craft and then you put your particular view into the craft.”
Storytelling may come naturally, but it isn’t always easy. Coburn, a master of problem solving in documentary filmmaking, loves a challenge. “When people tell you something isn’t working, it doesn’t mean you get rid of it. It means you have to work harder,” she says, citing the scene in Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise in which young white girls humiliated young Maya’s grandmother, who ran a country store, by baring their bottoms to her beloved elder. Coburn and co-director Bob Hercules thought it essential to show how devastating an impact this act of contempt and dominance had on young Maya, but test audiences didn’t understand just what was happening on screen. Coburn and Hercules met that challenge by creating a brief reenactment, a daring directorial choice because reenactments were still considered inappropriate in “serious” documentaries when the film was released in 2016.
Coburn’s problem-solving resourcefulness brought resolution to another reenacted scene, one in which Klu Klux Klan members were riding horses. “I could not pay white men to be Klu Klux Klan members, so we hired black cowboys to play KKKs. [We] put gloves on them!,” ” quips Coburn, expressing her keen sense of humor.
Money was a problem, too. Coburn stretched finances by appearing in reenactments where we see her hands as Maya’s grandmother’s hands, combing Maya’s hair, and again as the teacher, Mrs. Flowers, pouring iced tea.
As an experienced producer, the problem-solving is part of what Coburn enjoys most. “I love complicated. I don’t know why, but if it’s complicated, I’m your girl.”
Combating Hardship with Sisterhood
With full gratitude for her success, Coburn knows just how hard it is for women to make their way in the male dominated film industry. Always the problem-solver, she takes a strong stand on women working together to foment change for the better.
“It’s important for women artists to join groups and work together on a one- on one basis to encourage, strategize, vent and mobilize so that we can create our art across ethnicity and all of our diverse paths that are so different from the power structure that has always been the gate keeper of art. Even as the world of filmmaking and creativity is opening to women, we still have to cross and tear down barriers. We need to share our stories with one another because in many ways we must protect the art that we create. We want the viewer to be able to absorb and have a relationship with the art. Often, if they knew of the struggle we had to get our work to the screen, it might take away from their experience. So we need to talk with other share our war stories, the wounds, the casualties, the complications of trying to tell a story that in and of itself is very difficult, and we need work together to develop ways of getting more stories out to receptive audiences. We need an outlet for the “how I got over moments” to encourage one another so that we can continue to tell the stories that need to be told,” says Coburn.
Making Authentic Connections
Coburn is authentically great at making connections. She is an exceptional interviewer because she connects with her subjects, and listens to them closely. She says the secret to her approach is to ask, “What can this person tell me that nobody else can?“
In Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Coburn uses on camera interviews to reveal much of Dr.Angelou’s story. Her solid grounding in film technique kept her from using a narrator in the film — because no one could measure up to the distinctive, authoritative voice of her subject. “You can’t do a narrator if you’ve got that voice,” says Coburn, who relied on interviews with other powerful voices who knew Dr. Angelou — including world figures the likes of President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Cecily Tyson, and other people who were most important in Dr. Angelou’s life, like her son, Guy Johnson.
Coburn relishes making connections with audiences at post-screening Q&As. After the screening of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise at Ebertfest 2019, she told the enraptured audience that “I do not believe in coincidences. In any room, if you are completely present there, you are going to get what you need and people are going to get what they need from you. All we have is the authenticity of our moments together. The people who are in this theater at this moment are from the same ‘tribe’ because we have all chosen to be here at this moment. We call people to ourselves,” she said.
In keeping with her commitment to youth, Coburn has signed on as faculty filmmaker mentor to high school girls in Chicago Housing Authority public housing. During an intensive six-week summer workshop, participating girls are aided by staff, graduate students and mentors to make a short film. Created by DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts College of Computing & Digital Media, the program gives them unique access to learn filmmaking skills and share stories about social topics that are important to them.
“I believe it is important for these young women to have experiences with all people but especially African American women in the industry. And it is important for me to understand the stories that are important to them in order to be current, relevant and responsive in the film industry, but also so we can feed each other’s souls through sisterhood.”
As she considers future documentary projects, Coburn sometimes hears that “they want fewer bios and more social justice. But bios are part of social justice because if you don’t know who the people are, then just talking on the surface or even in depth about issues that are happening now, you still don’t have a full picture.”
Currently, Coburn is being chased and is seeking investors for another bio documentary on an African American woman, “who for the second time, her time has come. Trust me, you want to be a part of this project and I was drawn to it spiritually and have fallen in love,” she says.
Coburn’s creativity is taking her down other avenues as well. She has finished her first screenplay, a contemporary story that has garnered some interest in the industry. And, the manuscript for her new novel, Ella’s Deliverance, is in the hands of literary agent Faith Childs. The narrative follows two sets of black women intertwined in friendship from the late 1920’s through 1999 as they tell their stories of love, family, racism and deliverance. Aware of new media’s emerging storytelling platforms, Coburn is investigating alternative ways to tell this epic story.
Rita Coburn is in AWFJ’s SPOTLIGHT for this month because of her commitment to telling the stories of people who have for too long been marginalized or ignored, and for telling those stories with compassion, empathy, and artistry. We love what she says about how she chooses her projects. “I have to be guided. You chase the story until the story starts to chase you.”