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Now streaming on Hulu, Ailey is a biographical documentary about Alvin Ailey, the widely acclaimed dancer and choreographer who pioneered the art of dance for black Americans in the mid-20th century. It’s a long-running PBS production American masters series, which chronicles the lives of great cultural figures, and is directed by Jamila Wignot, the multi-award-winning filmmaker behind African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. The question here is whether Wignot can create a full portrait of a famous individual like Ailey.


The essential: The film opens with the 1988 Kennedy Center Honors, with presenter Cicely Tyson honoring Ailey, who appears physically fragile as he is showered with applause. Today, choreographers and dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are working on a tribute piece to mark the company’s 60th anniversary. School instructors explain how Ailey believed dancers to be “historians of physics,” working “memories of blood,” the experiences of their ancestors, through dance – and maybe this helps contextualize the distinctive verbal cues, intuitive exhortations, ha-ha-has and YAHs, which instructors use to develop movements for dancers.

It might be hard to believe that all of this is the product of a man born in rural Texas during the Great Depression, who was homeless for a time while his mother – he never knew his father – moved from job to job. When he was 12, they landed in Los Angeles, and at 14, he attended the ballet, where he watched, fascinated. Fearing that he would be teased for wanting to be a dancer, he tried his hand at football which, unsurprisingly, didn’t hold up, but quickly found his place in gymnastics. We hear Ailey’s voice in an archival interview as he shares some details about his experiences and upbringing on era-specific generic footage; there is clearly not much visual documentation of his youth, until he moved to New York, where he founded the AAADT in 1958.

Between Ailey’s comments, former members of her company share stories about her work, including a signature piece Revelations and social protest work Masakela language – and the growth of AAADT from a difficult and low-paid company to a company of international renown. They also share what little they know of Ailey himself, who rarely let anyone into his privacy and seemed to be close to anyone other than his mother. He talks vaguely about same-sex relationships he kept a secret and his time in a mental hospital, which occurred after an episode of erratic behavior; he eventually had a sofa moved in the dance school so he could just be near the dancers and choreographers as he suffered from the AIDS-related illness that would eventually cost him his life. But, says this documentary, the legacy of his work speaks for itself.

Photo: Everett Collection

What movies will this remind you of? : the American masters the series is uniformly good – its episodes on Sam Cooke and Peanuts Creator Charles Schulz stands out, and his two parts on Woody Allen were once considered final (although we might think differently about it now).

Performances to watch: When dancer and former AAADT director Judith Jamison describes how the solo work he composed for her, Shout, subconsciously took possession of the lower half of her body when she performed it, it’s a stunning testament to the emotional power of Ailey’s work.

Memorable dialogue: Dancer George Faison, on Ailey’s relationship to dance: “He was possessed and he had to serve this god.

Gender and skin: Nothing.

Our opinion : Ailey’s work is represented more in this documentary than the man himself, as if Wignot was searching through the powerful and hypnotic performances – both those of Ailey’s and the dancers he choreographed – for clues to her. inner life. It was an enigma, and who can blame him? He carried the burden of being not only a black cultural innovator, but also that of a homosexual; Notably, he expressed the emotions of the black experience and the protest movement of the 1960s in his work, but chose not to participate in the gay community which surely would have embraced its cultural hiding place.

So yes, he was a complicated man, and Wignot chooses to explore these complexities in an impressionistic way. Maybe too impressionistic, like Ailey can’t balance being a dry Wikipedia entry in movie form, and, well, not being a dry Wikipedia entry in film form. It definitely leans towards the latter: the timelines are smeared, the themes of his work are implied more often than they are clearly stated, and the details of his pre-AAADT career are removed from the film entirely (the same is true of many. many compelling facts, ranging from his professional associations with Maya Angelou and Harry Belafonte to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder). It tends to let us understand Ailey’s influences, which is a way of saying that we’re tempted to take a break and start the internet to help us out – and by “we” I mean strangers who don’t know. not the art of dance well – break down how it fused jazz, dark spiritualities, classical ballet and other forms into one identifiable style and body of work.

Ailey is at its best when its dancers speak of Ailey in both respectful and humanizing terms, when they describe the transcendent experience of performing such a powerful work. Wignot also lets the politics of his art bubble mainly in a subtextual way, so that this biodoc does not derail in a controversy; her most daring moment is when Wignot places images of Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Kennedy Center gala above the discussion of Ailey’s struggles with AIDS, quietly but vociferously accusing the former president of his cruelty. indifference to the epidemic while in office. The documentary is a deeply respectful and often solemn canonization of Ailey, and while it is at times too low-key, it is unerringly persuasive in asserting that its subject matter is worthy of reverence.

Our call: Stream it. Ailey is not Alvin Ailey’s perfect bio, but it is nonetheless a worthy tribute to a great American.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.

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