Rita Coburn Whack is determined and persistent. It took five years of work to coproduce the first documentary on Maya Angelou. Rita along with her co-producer Bob Hercules produced a beautiful tribute to Dr. Angelou. Rita is an award-winning writer, producer and director for television, magazines, series, news, talk shows. She is a former newspaper reporter for the Citizens Newspaper. She has won awards for her radio production at NPR. And she was the producer of Angelou’s radio program for Oprah Winfrey Radio. She started the documentary when Angelou was alive, interviewing her in her living room home. She and Bob promised that they would finish the film, and they did, after her death Together they co-produced and co-directed the first film ever of a phenomenal woman . You can see this is a labor of devotion and love. . Coburn Whack is the owner of RCW Media Productions, and lives in a Chicago south suburbs.
You were a producer of the Maya Angelou Radio program at Oprah Winfrey Studios. What was the program about?
Maya Angelou believed that “we are more alike than unalike” and that was the backbone of the program. We had a reoccurring show formatted with everyday Americans talking about their pride in the country and the work that they did, so from veterans; male, female and all races, people from different parts of culture such as a native American who’s daughter wanted to be identified as First Nation we had guests who talked about their culture. Another theme was Ask Dr. Angelou and people called in for encouragement more than advise with children, career and personal issues, to these callers she offered a different way of viewing their current circumstance. We also interviewed celebrities, musicians and politicians from Chris Rock, Mary J. Blige, Common, Phyllis Diller, Secretary Clinton, President Clinton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf many others and of course Oprah Winfrey.
How did you become interested in media?
I consider myself a griot in the ancient tradition of the traveling West African storytellers that weaved music and poetry into their stories. In our modern day a griot is a novelist, a filmmaker, a person who takes the tales of the culture to a broader and new audience. I discovered this with my beginnings of being an avid reader, then writer, lover of words both prose and poetry and being a frustrated history lover. There was something missing from the history I read, there was not enough about me, my family, my people. Then I discovered television and radio and it all came together.
What was it like to work with Maya Angelou?
Maya Angelou was every black woman I had known or wanted to know and she was generous with her knowledge. My mother is 93, so I was used to the wisdom of the older black woman. Add my aunts and my community and I was at home. From Oprah Winfrey’s generosity and my position as Maya Angelou’s producer for our Oprah Radio Show, I would spend 3-4 days a month with her at her home in Winston Salem so I was steeped in the southern part of her life and ways. I would also spend time with her in Harlem so the urban culture as well as on the road. In these various settings friends, family and celebrities would stop by or call. It was like having a wonderful aunt who knew everyone, cooked your favorite dishes and was always teaching you the lessons of life. So I worked for her before the documentary.
How did you prepare her for an interview?
Very well or there would be a, let’s say short, interesting, one-sided discussion. I would read books, highlight areas or sometimes we would read together. I would also use official bio’s, articles etc… and prepare a small booklet on the topic. In the case of the Ask Maya Angelou or Maya Angelou’s America segments, I would pre-interview the guests and highlight areas I thought might lead to the desired conversation. I would write openings with the full knowledge that they would be rewritten much better. She expected me to be professional and as she would say, “bring it.”
What was the impetus of the Maya Angelou documentary?
As I heard President Clinton call or Michelle Obama call and request an introduction at an event before she became the First Lady, Martina McBride ask her to open for her Grand Ole Opry performance (Dr. Angelou loved country music), I was amazed at her range of interest and relationships. Then Sonya Sanchez and Dorothy Height would come and stay a few days, Ambassador Andrew Young, Professor Nikki Giovanni or Chris Rock or Common would drop by. I re-read her books, then add to that hearing her recount her life in my headphones as I produced her radio show. I realized I was listening to history from a Black woman’s point of view. The missing point of view. I realized a documentary would honor her life, her take on history and pull together many of the obscure moments into one place and be appealing across generations.
Maya Angelou was every black woman I had known or wanted to know and she was generous with her knowledge.
What is the most significant take away of this film, for you?
The first line. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated, in fact it may be necessary for you to encounter defeats so that you know who you are?” The take away for me is life, especially lived to its fullest is going to get messy, but I can handle it. I am deeply encouraged in my faith and in my ability to live life well. The film is an encouragement to me.
What lesson(s) did you learn in doing this film?
That this industry is a wonderful and challenging place to be. We need more African Americans telling our stories. We will have to fight to tell these stories. We will have to kick doors open, take names and stay true to ourselves. You need to fight for every scene and make it pitch to you. If you chase the story hard enough, it will start to chase you.
Who should see this film?
This is a film to span generations so after about Sophomore year in high-school or earlier with some teachable moments, this is world history and circumnavigates the globe, gender, race and challenges you to grow. One woman at the Chicago Black Harvest Film Festival at the Siskel Center stopped me outside and said, “I just grew in there.” So anyone who wants to grow in a deeper understanding of this culture should see the film.
Who was Maya Angelou?
A woman in the right place at the right time who came into her own, documenting the journey with faith, works and having it documented by the current media continually. Her ability to transcend the Jim Crow, lynching, Ku Klux Klan South, navigate her talent as an artist with song, dance and writing, then love, lose and get back up and do it again is measured against a culture that throws continuous punches which land with some imbalance on African Americans and women. Maya Angelou was also a woman of faith who practiced forgiveness of others as well as herself. She was a teacher who’s words and works continue to teach us.
What’s next for Rita Coburn Whack?
I am considering several documentaries now and want to continue to do culturally significant work. I also have a few shorts I would like to direct. Mostly, I want to live in a place of work that deals with growth, legacy and a story that chases me down.