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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie depicts the violent beginnings of a rape of a very young protagonist. The entire assault isn't shown, but it's clear what will happen. When Maya identifies her rapist, her uncles kill him. The movie also conveys strong messages about overcoming adversity and learning to love yourself as you are.
What's the story?
Set in the 1930s, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS begins as two black children are sent to live with their stoic but caring grandmother in Arkansas. Maya and her brother witness firsthand the horrors of racism. But they also run into people like Rose Flowers, a schoolteacher who inspires them to develop their talents. In Maya's case, that talent is writing. One day, their philandering daddy comes and takes them to St. Louis, where they meet their flashy mother Vivian (Diahann Carroll) and their imperious Grandmother Baxter (Ruby Dee). Their mother's boyfriend, Freeman, rapes young Maya, and when Maya identifies him, her uncles kill the man. Traumatized by the lethal power of her words, Maya refuses to speak again. The children are sent back to Arkansas, where Rose convinces Maya that her voice must be heard. At her graduation, Maya gives an exhilarating valedictory speech.
Is it any good?
Adapted from Angelou’s novel about her life growing up in the South during the Depression, this is a direct and sincere telling of a young black girl's journey to knowledge and affirmation. Originally a made-for-TV movie, what this film lacks in glamour it makes up for in content. Angelou adapted her book herself for this filmed version, and it shows. In the first part of this engrossing movie, we are exposed to the virulent racism of the American South in the 1930s. The movie's unflinching gaze has lost none of its impact, despite the 20 years that have passed since it was made.
The second part of the movie shifts to life in the big city of St. Louis, and if the movie loses some of its dramatic drive, it gains in its breadth of vision. Life in St. Louis brings Maya to an understanding of her worth as a black woman. The movie also nicely juxtaposes the joy and tragedy of Maya's life with salient moments in history, like the scene in which the black community gathers around a radio to hear Joe Louis win the national heavyweight boxing title. While the movie's pacing is a bit slow by contemporary standards, the deep and stirring story rewards patience.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the book and movie differ or are the same. In this case, the author of the book adapted it for the screen, but when a book is dramatized, it's more common for someone else to write the script. Do you think it made a difference for the author herself to do the screenplay? If so, how?
- In theaters: April 28, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: December 18, 2001
- Cast: Diahann Carroll, Paul Benjamin, Ruby Dee
- Director: Barry Cook
- Studio: Artisan Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage, Humility, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 19, 2019
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