I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings



Forceful telling of Angelou's coming-of-age book.
  • Review Date: September 19, 2005
  • Rated: NR
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1999
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Maya's father is a womanizer, her mother a card dealer in a gambling house.


We see the violent beginnings of a rape of the very young protagonist. We don't see any more of the assault, but it's clear what is about to happen. When Maya identifies her rapist, her uncles kill him.

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking
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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.

Kids say

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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 the Maya Angelou novel concerning 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.

Families can talk 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?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:April 28, 1999
DVD release date:December 18, 2001
Cast:Diahann Carroll, Paul Benjamin, Ruby Dee
Director:Barry Cook
Studio:Artisan Entertainment
Run time:96 minutes
MPAA rating:NR

This review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was written by

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  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Teen, 13 years old Written byKhrystelle-Wa April 9, 2008
Parent of a 7, 10, 12, and 15 year old Written byRBass November 13, 2009
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex


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