John Singleton on Maya Angelou: 'She Was the First Renaissance Person I Ever Met'
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I contacted her when I was doing 1993's Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur because I was having problems writing the poetry. I thought, "I'm reading these poems by Maya Angelou; why not use her poems?" But I had to get her permission. So I met her for lunch, and we bonded and she also agreed to be in the movie. I had her improv most of her dialogue because, how am I going to write the way she speaks? She speaks so beautifully. I tried to push her to do four or five takes. And after four takes, she said, "Mr. Singleton, I will not be doing any more improv." She was very supportive of me with Poetic Justice, though -- even with all the cursing in that movie. Later, after she'd seen my movie Rosewood [about a real-life racial incident], she said, "Baby, now you've done it, you've really done it." You know, in that voice.
I also spent time with her at her home in Winston-Salem. She made a mean apple cider. I would sit and talk with her about her contemporaries -- James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Alex Haley. She knew everybody and she had so many different lives: She was a dancer, a singer, she was the first renaissance person I ever met. She had done it all. On the set of Poetic Justice, everyone was enamored of her. We had grown up with her work. I remember seeing her reading on Sesame Street. Her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was one of the first formative novels I read as a kid. She was the grandmother most of us had never met. My daughter is actually named after her: Justice Maya Singleton.