Alumnus, storyteller brings American legend to the screen

Story by: Jay Penny, School of Communication graduate student 
For inquiries, contact: Molly Goaley

Peabody award-winning filmmaker Bob Hercules credits his time at Western for giving him the foundation to tell inspiring stories, including that of prolific poet, activist and author Maya Angelou.

Hercules (right) accepts the Peabody Award in documentary filmmaking with Walker (left) and Coburn Whack.

On May 19, acclaimed filmmaker Bob Hercules (B.A. '79) experienced the pinnacle moment of his career when he and his team accepted the 2017 Peabody Award in documentary filmmaking for “Maya Angelou: Still I Rise,” a film about the late poet, essayist, activist and celebrity.

The Peabody Awards, founded in 1940 and once considered the “Pulitzer Prize for radio,” honor the most important stories and storytellers working in television, radio and digital media each year. Recipients must be unanimously chosen by a board of jurors comprised of industry professionals, media scholars, critics and journalists. Hercules, a School of Communication graduate, credits his time at Western for giving him the foundation to tell inspiring stories and developing his creative and political outlook.

Telling Angelou's story

The documentary examines the formation and life of Dr. Maya Angelou, one of America’s foremost voices of political concerns, racial divides and compassion of the late 20th century.

While exploring the idea for the project, Hercules was “shocked” to learn that no one had previously made a film about the prolific figure. “Many people had approached Dr. Angelou with the idea of doing a film and she turned everybody down because of various reasons,” he says.

Through a mutual friend, Hercules was soon introduced to co-producer and co-director Rita Coburn Whack, who had an existing relationship with Angelou and was planning a documentary of her own. The two filmmakers decided to embark on the project as team.

Together with Whack, Hercules was able to build trust with Angelou by explaining that the film was intended for PBS’ “American Masters,” a program for which he had done previous work. He sat down with Angelou to show some of his past films for the series, including “A Good Man” which showcased acclaimed director and choreographer Bill T. Jones’ life. After meeting with the directors, Angelou gave her blessing for them to proceed with the project.

Capturing her legacy

Hercules (left) with Coburn Whack, business partner Keith Walker, and Angelou (front).

In preparing for the documentary, Hercules says he didn’t want to make a “list film” that simply showed accomplishments chronologically. “I wanted to tell stories about her life that would be representative of her whole life,” he says. “I wanted to be able to tell stories at greater depth.”

To achieve a narrative that touches upon the breadth of Angelou’s life, Hercules sought interviews from many of the people she associated with throughout her career, including former President Bill and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Angelou famously recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and maintained ties with the former first family throughout her life.

Hercules also interviewed actors Lou Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson who co-starred with Angelou in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” in 1961.The documentary perhaps reaches its greatest emotional depth through interviews with Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, who offers a poignant and intimate account of his late mother.

Hercules learned of Angelou’s passing in May 2014 while filming the project, which first aired on “American Masters” in 2016. “She was a riveting person,” he says. “She was a giant in the world of arts, politics and political activism.”

A writer's roots

Hercules initially developed his storytelling skills as a creative writing student at WMU. He felt the University had a strong writing program that would help him progress as an author. In the program, professors pushed him to go deeper and get in touch with his own narrative.

“They always said, with writers, to tell your own story,” Hercules says. “It will have a deeper and more resonant impact. That was the biggest lesson I learned from those professors is to just tell my own story.”

Bob Hercules as a student deejay

Hercules as a student deejay for WIDR in the 1970s.

While attending WMU in the late ’70s, Hercules says he started to become aware of the political climate of the time and pointed to when President Carter reinstated the draft. “That's what really, in a sense, politicized me,” he says. “I would say it changed my life because I became very interested in political and social issues, which I still am to this day.”

Hercules’ latest film project is reminiscent of his college days and is based on his experience working as a student deejay for WMU’s own WIDR radio station. During that time, he says, music was moving away from disco to more progressive rock and punk.

The film, which is tentatively titled “Waiting for The Clash,” is a departure from his documentary work, diving into fictional comedy. It centers around students who are fined by the FCC for a vulgar on-air comment and are trying to book the English rock band The Clash to play a concert in Kalamazoo in order to raise money for the fine. As with most comedies, Hercules explains, all hell breaks loose and it’s a disaster.

“They also can't stand disco,” he laughs. “I had a lot of fun making fun of myself, basically in those days, because I was one of those people.”

Turning filmmaking into a career

Hercules went on to earn his master’s degree from the University of Michigan and eventually made his way to Chicago in the mid ’80s where he began networking with other filmmakers. In 1985 he and friend David Beaton formed Media Process Group, a video production company with the goal of making independent documentaries entirely in-house. Hercules still co-owns the Chicago-based company today.

“Chicago is a very collaborative city for filmmakers, that's one thing that has kept me here,” he says. “And one thing that I cherish is that most of us here in Chicago, especially the documentary community, are all friends. We help each other out. It's not cutthroat like other places. It's very collaborative. It really means a lot to me to have such great colleagues.”

With advice to aspiring student filmmakers, Hercules says technology has made the gateway to creating films much more feasible economically than when he started making Super 8 films as an adolescent. “I would tell young filmmakers to simply make films and learn as you go,” he says. “You can learn a certain amount at school, but you can also learn a lot by making mistakes, trying things, experimenting.”

While Hercules now calls Chicago home, he was quick to point out how Kalamazoo shaped his creative process and allowed him to grow as an artist. “I just loved my time in Kalamazoo and it was a very fruitful time for me,” he says. “For the size of the town it's amazing the amount of arts, entertainment and farmer's markets – things that give it that big city feel – as well as opportunities to collaborate with different artists around town.”

View this story and more in the 2018 issue of WMU's Arts and Sciences Magazine.