Maya Angelou's life was filled with eloquent transformations


Near the end of a brilliant Maya Angelou profile (Tuesday, Feb. 21, on PBS), there's a moment that brings things full-circle. A young, black hotel employee, in elegant uniform, tells Angelou about the speech cotests she's won by reciting Angelou's words.

Flash back to the beginning of the dilm, when Angelou described her father as a black man whom Southerners considered "too grand for his skin"; he moved to Los Angeles and became a hotel doorman in elegant uniform. Now his daughter's words had propelled another elegant hotel person. The world changes, lives end, but Maya Angelou's words linger forever. Here's the story I sent to papers.

 By Mike Hughes

Maya Angelou had one
of the world's great voices.

It's a voice that
propelled poetry at Bill Clinton's inauguration, that sang on stage
and on film, that offered love and rage from podiums and pulpits. And
for five years, it was totally silent.

That was when she
was 7 and told about the man (her mother's boyfriend) who had raped
her; the man was soon killed and she decided her voice was lethal.
The silence seemed tragic – and maybe wasn't.

It was “combined
with great intake of knowledge, of writing, of reading,” said Colin
Johnson, her grandson and one of the advisors to a compelling
“American Masters” film on PBS.

And it was the
opposite of our overbusy era, when kids have little time to reflect.

Spurred by a
neighbor, the little girl read every book in the black-school library
and every one her grandmother could borrow from the white school. She
memorized Shakespearean plays, 50 sonnets, the great works of
American and foreign authors.

“Her mutism to me
is central to who she is,” Johnson said. “She had a level of
peace and calm.”

And then came
another transformation. Tis deeply pensive person becane an imposing
physical force. Six feet tall, she danced – first at a strip club
(keeping her tiny costume on) and then as a Calypso star.

“A lot of us
didn't know the story of her as a Calypso singer, a dancer,” said
Bob Hercules, co-director of the PBS film, which incluces clips from
the 1957 “Calypso Heat Wave” and 1959 “Porgy and Bess.”

That phase may seem
out-of-sync with her life, but her friend Lou Gossett sees a
connection. “What strikes me about her life is her consistency in
growth .... I remember her dancing the Calypso. I remember her at the
United Nations.... She grew and grew.”

Her childhood was
split between cities (St. Louis, Los Angeles) and Stamps, a tiny
Arkansas time (now with 2,100 people) where her grandmother had the
only black-owned store. She toured as a performer. She met an African
activist and spent years as a towering figure, tooling around Ghana
in a tiny Fiat.

Before and after
that time, she was part of the artistic scene in New York. Gossett
met her doing Jean Genet's “The Blacks,” which bended reality and
gripped playgoers. “Every now and then, they'd faint,” he said.
“I remember a man had a heart attack, because he thought it was
really real.”

He learned she had
strong artistic and political sides; in New York, she communed with
activists, artists and authors. When Malcolm X was killed, she slid
into a week-long funk. Then her friend James Baldwin forced her to a
congenial dinner with cartoonist Jules Ffeiffer and others.

There, Angelou
charmed guests with stories. Ffeiffer's wife called a publisher and
insisted this woman should be writing books. Angelou resisted ... and
then wrote seven autobiographical books and more.

“Here is a woman
who penned 36 books,” said Rita Coburn Whack, who co-directed the
PBS film. “We went over, I'd say, 4,000 photographs (and) upwards
of 150 hours of videotape.”

It was a sprawling
life that included performances ranging from “Roots” to “Sesame
Street,” from a Butterfinger commercial to bringing Tupac Shakur to
tears on the “Poetic Justice” set.

“She was the best
grandmother that ever lived, ... the grandma that had your favorite
dish in the kitchen,” Colin Johnson said. Before her death (in
2014, at 86), she re-connected with everyone.

“My grandma's life
is a call to action,” Colin said. The PBS films “tells a story
about someone who hasn't give up on herself or humanity.”

-- “American
Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

-- 8-10 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS

Cush Jumbo and "The Good Fight" fit TV's new-normal world


At any time, Cush Jumbo would be interesting. You don't meet many people who have played both Josephine Baker and Mark Antony. Or, for that matter, many named Cush. But now she's also part of an interesting change in the TV world. "The Good Fight" -- which starts Feb. 19 on CBS, then moves to CBS All Access -- is her second series to reach American viewers mainly via streaming. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In one swoop, Cush
Jumbo summarized her odd, trans-Atlantic life:

I never do anything
in the normal way,” she said.

Then again, normal
is hard to find these days ... even on CBS, TV's last refuge of
normality. Her new show (“The Good Fight”) has exactly one
episode there, then moves to a streaming service.

That's CBS All
Access, where it joins a mountain of reruns -- “we now have over
8,500 episodes” said Marc DeBevoise, head of CBS Interactive –
and, eventually, “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Consider it the new
normal. Using computers or apps, viewers try streaming services; some
are free (YouTube, Comet), most aren't. They range from Netflix, Hulu
and Amazon to specialties: Seeso has comedy; Acorn has
British/Australian TV ... which is how some Americans found Jumbo.

For two-plus
seasons, she was with Oscar-nominee Brenda Blethyn -- “I've been
lucky to work with my heroes” -- on “Vera,” a cop show that
reaches the U.S. via Acorn; in between, she did all her other
abnormal things ... including an all-female production of “Julius
Caesar.”

Even her name is
unusual. “Cush” is usually a boy's name, she said; “it's a
hippie name.” (It also was the Nubian kingdom, south of Egypt.) And
“Jumbo” is the surname of her father, who's Nigerian.

Jumbo grew up in
England, her mother's homeland, as the second of seven kids. She took
dance lessons from ages 3 to 15, started theater school at 14, and
worked constantly in TV and theater. In 2011, she won an award for
her work in Shakespeare's “As You Like It” as Rosalind, a heroine
who'd previously been played by Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave.
“On stage, I can be any color.”

Or any gender. She
was nominated for England's top award (the Olivier) for her work as
Mark Antony – a natural for her, because she warms up by reciting
Antony's speech. “It's very muscular,” she said.

Jumbo reached New
York with that show ... and her one-woman Josephine Baker show ...
and “The River,” on Broadway with Hugh Jackman. Casting people
spotted her for a “Good Wife” audition.

“I'd been watching
the show from the first episode, on its first day in England,”
Jumbo said. When she was cast, she feared being “geeked out on it
so much, because it's embarrassing to come to work and know too many
things about the judges or get excited by elevator doors.”

Her character, Lucca
Quinn, did the final season and now moves to “Good Fight.” She
joined an all-black law firm that now adds three white women –
veteran lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), newcomer Maia
Rindell (Rose Leslie) and whip-smart aide Marissa Gold (Sarah
Steele).

That's three “Good
Wife” transplants – Baranski, Jumbo and Steele – with more in
guest roles. “There was a real reluctance on my part to let go of
what was a great job (with) great writers,” Baranski said..

And now those
writers are unfettered. The new version has more time (49 minutes on
All Access, 42 on CBS) and more freedom. “Our issues with
standards-and-practices (censors) have been reduced to nil,” said
Robert King, who produces the show with his wife Michelle.

It's an abnormal way
to work ... which is sort of normal for Jumbo. “I'll be Hamlet one
day,” she said.

-- “The Good
Fight” opener is 8 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19) on CBS and CBS All Access.

-- The season's
other nine episodes will be available on the next nine Sundays at
www.cbsall-access.com.
That's $5.99 a month, or $9.99 commercial-free. All-Access has reruns
of other current and past shows, plus “Big Brother: Over the Top”
and the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery

 

After 65 years on the job, Attenborough worked on a fresh triumph


"Planet Earth II" may be the best TV series of this season ... or of most seasons. It's a brilliantly crafted documentary series ... as good, perhaps, as the original was a decade ago. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When it comes to
wildlife, you'd think that David Attenborough has seen it all.

He started working
for BBC television 65 years ago – back when he didn't own a TV set
and had only seen one show. He became an on-camera “presenter” 61
years ago, traveling the globe.

But here is
Attenborough at 90, narrating the spectacular “Planet Earth 2”
and talking passionately about its details. There's “that fox,
going after its little rodent, which is down beneath the snow.”

The rodent seems
safe there, but the fox tracks it with precise hearing. “The only
way it's going to get down there quick enough to catch it is to dive
headfirst into the snow,” Attenborough said. “And it's a very
effective technique – quite risky, I would have thought.”

Such moments keep
refreshing a genre that Attenborough and his British colleagues have
perfected.

The original “Planet
Earth” was an 11-hour marvel. It won four Emmys (including
“outstanding nonfiction series”) and a Peabody Award; the
Television Critics Association gave it the group's top awards for
news and for movies or miniseries.

A decade later, this
seven-hour sequel is coming to the U.S., after similar success in
England. It “was a ratings phenomenon and cultural event, ...
reaching over half the (United Kingdom) population,” said Sarah
Barnett, president of BBC America, which debuts it Saturday.

The key question was
whether a sequel could find fresh material. It could, said producer
Mike Gunton, because of improved technology. Drone photography has
soared in the past decade -- “the skill of the pilots has
exponentially increased” -- and motion-sensor cameras thrive.

As a result,
Attenborough said, filmmakers are “doing things we thought were
quite impossible up to about five years ago” -- including getting
the most elusive of subjects, the snow leopard.

“Only two can
exist in about a hundred square miles of the ... Himalayas,”
Attenborough said, but filmmakers were “able to get the amazingly
intimate shots .... I think it's magical.”

At times, sheer
persistence is needed. One example was filming the penguins of
Savodovski Island.

That's “1,200
miles away from the Falkland Islands,” said producer Elizabeth
White. “It's an epic trip. You have to fly down there; you then
join a very small yacht and you sail through the roughest ocean on
Earth for seven or eight days, to (reach) this little spot of land
that's actually an active volcano.”

Attenborough said he
was surprised they did it. “I thought they were barmy.”

This project brings
many surprises, from unpopulated islands to overpopulated cities.
“New York city has the highest density of breeding peregrine
falcons of any place in the world, “ Attenborough said.

Really. The world of
Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Yankees also has falcons swooping
down.

“Skyscrapers
replicate the conditions under which the peregrine falcons evolve –
places where then can exploit the updraft of the air and where they
can find good prey, which are pigeons,” Attenborough said. “I
thought that that sequence shot in New York was really a sensation.”

This is the tone of
someone who still seems to savor his work after 65 years ... and who
does it well. A decade ago, the American version of “Planet Earth”
stripped off Attenborough's voice and replaced him with Sigourney
Weaver. “I never understood why,” Gunton said.

This time (with Hans
Zimmer, a nine-time Oscar-nominee doing the music), Attenborough does
the narration for both countries. “It is like a virtuoso
performance,” Gunton said. “It's one take ... the enthusiasm, the
passion, the dynamic storytelling cannot be replicated by doing
retakes.”

-- “Planet Earth
II,” 9 p.m. and midnight ET (6 and 9 p.m. PT) Saturdays, BBC
America

-- Seven weeks,
starting with “Islands” on Feb. 18 and “Mountains” on Feb. 25

-- The opener will
also be shown at 9 p.m. Feb. 18 on AMC and Sundance; BBC America will
rerun it Thursday, Feb. 23, at 9 p.m. and midnight ET.

-- Reruns from the
original “Planet Earth” will fill the rest of the BBC America
time, from 6 a.m. ET Saturday to 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 18-19..

 

 

Suddenly, broadcast TV discovers transgender actors


"Doubt" -- which debuts Wednesday (Feb. 15) -- is an ambitious series that tries to do everything and botches some of it. One thing it does right, however, is having an interesting cast, led by Katherine Heigl, Elliott Gould and Laverne Cox ... who happens to be one of two transgender actresses with key roles in shows this Wednesday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

TV trends seem to
know only two speeds – stagnant and fast-forward.

Now that's true of
transgender actresses. Once invisible on broadcast TV, they suddenly
show up back-to-back Wednesday (Feb. 15) on two networks; they are:

-- Amiyah Scott. On
“Star” (9 p.m., Fox), she's Cotton Brown, whose mother (Queen
Latifah) disapproves of her ongoing transition to female. Tonight,
their pastor may step in.

-- Laverne Cox. On
“Doubt” (debuting at 10 p.m., CBS), she's Cameron Wirth, a
lawyer for a top-tier defense firm in New York. Tonight, she pushes
for a defendant to get an insanity verdict.

Last summer, CBS
programming chief Glenn Geller said Cox would be “the first
transgender actress ever to play a transgender series-regular
character” on a broadcast network. “I mean, that is huge.”

Except she's sort of
the second one. “Star” reached the air two months before “Doubt”;
Scott's role was tiny at first, but becomes more important this week.

Both actresses grew
up in the South – Scott in New Orleans, Cox in Mobile, Ala. --
about 15 years apart. Both had early moments in (or almost in)
reality shows.

Cox, 44, was a
contestant in the 2008 “I Want to Work for Diddy,” then was asked
about doing her own show. The result was “TRANSform Me,” with
three trans women providing makeovers. It had an eight-episode season
on VH1, hardly enough to provide financial comfort.

“In February of
2012, I was standing in a housing court in New York City, with an
eviction notice in my hand, trying to avoid eviction from my
apartment,” Cox said. The next year, she would be co-starring in
“Orange is the New Black” and receiving an Emmy nomination.

Then came “Doubt,”
from the husband-wife team of Tony Phelan and Joan Rater. “They
worked with Shonda Rhimes,” Cox said, “so they understand
diversity.”

They wrote for
Rhimes' “Grey's Anatomy” for a decade. They also have a
transgender son and, Phelan said, are passionate about Cox's
character. “She's a lawyer, brilliant, who happens to be trans.”

Adds Rater: “She
has the most sweeping love story of the season.”

And Scott? She's
been a model and is in her first TV job ... after a previous one
crumbled. She was hired for “The Real Housewifes of Atlanta,” but
(versions differ) quit or was fired. Instead, her TV debut is in a
small (usually) role in “Star,” a show that reflects its
producer.

“I'm a 57-year-old
black man who came to Hollywood with $7 in his pocket,” Lee Butler
said. Lately, he's created the hit “Empire” and now “Star,”
with its thorough diversity -- “putting a white girl (with her)
sister who is half black, with ... a very rich black girl, with a
transgender who is beautiful.”

That's Scott, who
began the change about a dozen years ago, at 17, facing some
resistance.

“I was (my
mother's) only child,” she said. “My father has daughters, (but)
I was his only son .... It was something difficult (for him) to deal
with.”

But he did. “Now
he calls me Princess .... Things can change.”

-- “Star,” 9
p.m., Fox. Cotton meets with the pastor, hoping to mend the rift with
her mother

-- “Doubt”
debut, 10 p.m., CBS. Laverne Cox co-stars as a defense lawyer

-- Both this
Wednesday (Feb. 15)

 

Their lives merged (briefly) during the Texas-tower sniper ordeal


To the rest of the world, this Tuesday (Feb. 14) is Valentine's Day; to PBS, it's a day for truly compelling documentaries about tragedies. At 9 p.m. is a superb "American Experience" on the Ruby Ridge stand-off; at 10 is an even better "Independent Lens" on the Texas tower sniper. Here's the story I sent to papers, about three of the key people from that Texas day.

 

By Mike Hughes

In the searing
August heat of Austin, Texas, these strangers shared an ordeal. Then
their lives went in opposite directions.

The tragedy –
described in a compelling PBS film Tuesday – was a half-century
ago, when a sniper began shooting from the tower at the University of
Texas. The people included:

-- Claire Wilson
James, then a pregnant teen-ager who was one of the first people hit.
Lying on the concrete, she heard someone say she couldn't be saved.
“I thought, 'Maybe that's it for me.'”

-- John “Artly”
Fox, who carried her to safety. “It was the most horrifying moment
of my life,” he said.

-- Ray Martinez, who
raced past her, something he's often thought about. “I didn't stop
to help her,” he said, “because I had a bigger mission.” At the
top of the tower, he and another cop killed the sniper.

That ended an ordeal
that left 14 people dead – 15 counting James' unborn son, 17
counting the wife and mother the sniper had killed the night before –
and 31 wounded. And then ... well, life went on.

“It happened on a
Monday,” Fox said. “The University of Texas was closed on a
Tuesday, to clean away the blood and classes started on Wednesday
.... It was just, 'Don't think about it; go on with life.'”

So they did ... in
very different ways.

Martinez, 80, kept
his life on track. He became a narcotics agent, a Texas Ranger, a
private eye and a justice of the peace. “I learned to really
appreciate life,” he said, “because I had survived.”

Fox, 68, stayed in
Austin, becoming a key part of its fun spirit. One friend called him
“a happy clown,” a guy who linked with an offbeat rock band,
doing everything from mime to puppetry. “If I've made somebody
smile, to me it's a good day,” Fox said. “I've seen the dark
side; I'm drawn to the light.”

James, also 68, did
try to return to college life after her three-month hospital stay.
“We just went on,” she said, “and never a word.”

She bumped into
James Love, one of the two men who carried her to safety, but he
seemed disinterested. The other rescuer (Love's friend, Fox) remained
a mystery to her. “I actually had thought he was an angel for a
long time,” she said, “because I couldn't find him anywhere.”

Soon, she left
school and began a cross-country existence. “I like my life,”
James said. “I've been many places. I get to teach; I know God
now.”

That last part may
have surprised friends who knew her as a free-thinking, skinnydipping
teen.

Growing up in a
liberal Dallas family that fought for civil rights, she had worked
with Students for a Democratic Society and had spent the previous
summer in Mississippi, registering black voters.

After the shooting,
her life gained fresh focus with the Seventh Day Adventists. She
taught at their schools, before and after graduating as an education
major at 35. Her boyfriend had been killed by the sniper; she married
and divorced twice and adopted a 4-year-old Ethiopian refugee.

James was busy ...
and, in a way, lonely. She admits to feeling envious of people after
the Columbine shooting, “because I felt that those people had more
of a community and they could talk to each other.”

During that tower
ordeal, she did have one person to talk to. Rita Starpattern –
later, an artist, activist and administrator -- threw herself on the
ground and kept her talking, to keep her alive. Others, hiding behind
cover, didn't budge. “We've gotta help the ones there's still hope
for,” she heard someone say.

Recalling that
moment now, James said she accepted the notion that her life was
ending. “I believe in the resurrection of the just.”

Fox and others were
hiding behind cover. As the temperature neared 100 degrees, he says,
he “suffered a mild case of heat stroke .... That's when I thought,
'What's it like out there for her?'” He grabbed Love and dashed to
the rescue.

It was a daring
move, but workable. The sniper “was shooting out of all four sides
of the tower,” Fox said. “So we had a three-to-one chance.”

They carried James
to safety; when the sniper was killed, Fox simply walked away.
“There's an inexplicable guilt inside me,” he said, “for not
doing more. We were all broken in some ways.”

-- “Tower,”
10-11:30 p.m. Tuesday, PBS; under the “Independent Lens” banner

-- Previously, it
won awards at six festivals and from four critics' groups.
Nationally, the Critics Choice Awards named it “most innovative
documentary.”

-- Director Keith
Maitland combined brief news footage with a “rotoscope” technique
that transforms actors (saying words the real people did in
interviews) into animation; he deliberately made no specific mention
of the sniper, Charles Whitman.