It was a rainy evening in Western Manhattan as I walked toward the Lincoln Center to see the new Documentary film ‘Ailey’ Directed by Jamila Wignot. It was one of those evenings where the sun has just barely set below the horizon and the last streaks of light shoot out like bolts of lightning over the ever-darkening sky. As the sun fades, however, a darkness invades, overtaking the beauty of the evening twilight with dark, dreary tentacles of an oncoming storm. Rain began to fall on my shoulders as I turned down 65th street rapidly propelling me to refuge beneath the awning of the Film at Lincoln Center marquee. As I stopped to fish my ticket out of my pocket I looked overhead at the murky sky, veins of grey seeping into what was once a beautiful evening vista.
Quietly, I moved into the theater and found a seat, claiming it as my own and withdrawing into it. As the film began to roll I was struck almost immediately at the intense funereal prognostication that pervades the opening montage of ‘Ailey.’ My heart and mind were struck equally, being both touched and moved and I couldn’t help but ruminate on the allusory metaphor of the evening’s weather for what was being presented on screen. Alvin Ailey, a mythos rather than a man, lived an experientially beautiful life marred in its later stages with personal tragedy. ‘Ailey’ does an unprecedentedly astounding job of conveying that very sentiment; Alvin was larger than life, a persona more than a human being like you or I, and this led him to lead a life of isolation and solitude that ultimately crippled his ability to find companionship. Alvin Ailey was a beautiful, warm evening that was overtaken by the cold hands of the night’s rain.
The evening’s rain for Alvin Ailey comes in the form of racial injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, struggling with AIDS during a time where society considered the disease a satanic mark, and being confined to the walls of a mental hospital all before his premature death at the age of 58. Alvin faced immeasurable hardship in his life, overcoming but ultimately falling victim to his circumstance. Alvin achieved heights still unmatched today in the field of dance, even more impressive when contextualized with the times’ biases and racial inequity directed towards African Americans. The film does not place too much emphasis on this fact, deciding rather pay homage to the man and his existence, delving into the persona and granting us a glimpse into the mind of true genius.
Who was Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey was a world-famous African American dancer and choreographer who founded the historic Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey focused on modern dance as his medium but blended a mix of primitive and jazz elements together to formulate his own kind of style. His dance style was shaped by his childhood, a time of great struggle for the future master. Originally born in Texas in 1931, Alvin’s early years consisted of unadulterated racism, moving from place to place, and hardship. Dealing with an absentee father Alvin became the definition of a Mama’s boy, a relationship that would become his strongest until his death.
Alvin would lead an extremely private life, living as a nomad as he traveled with his company from city to city. He was described as an intense but extremely encouraging teacher who took on the role of a father, filling a void he had in his own life. Alvin would battle these demons his entire life, preventing anyone from truly being there for himself while being exactly what he wished he had for himself. I had the pleasure of doing a question and answer series with ‘Ailey’ Director, Jamila Wignot who said, “He became the father that he wishes he had, but at the same time he couldn’t turn that light on for himself. He couldn’t understand how to allow others to give him that light and that love, himself.”
Alvin Ailey would die of AIDS in 1989. Alvin lived a life of penultimate beauty in the face of the greatest adversity known to mankind. He was survived by his mother, Lula, who was his closest companion until the day he died.
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Director Jamila Wignot has assembled one of the best Documentaries in recent times and, dare I say, a near-masterpiece of emotional intelligence. The first 30 minutes of the film is, essentially, archival footage of Alvin’s childhood shot on black and white film. Some really stunning and beautiful photography goes uninterrupted for almost 30 minutes, shoving us viewers into the reality that was Alvin’s childhood. The picture is underscored by a grainy and dense recording/voice-over of Alvin describing his life. His cadence and demeanor are so commanding and emotional you are sure to be absolutely gripped from the very onset. These moments are some of the most impactful I have ever experienced in film
After the montage-esque opening, the film takes on a more traditional documentary style where it is led by interviews discussing the most famous aspects of Alvin’s life. Some of the discussion is extremely moving as we delve into the most personal recesses of Alvin’s existence. I feel obligated to get this point across, ‘Ailey’ is not your traditional documentary. ‘Ailey’ is a hard-hitting, extremely personal exploration of self and the beautifully dark mind that was Alvin Ailey.
A discussion with those involved
As previously mentioned, I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of speaking with Director Jamila Wignot and the current Alvin Ailey American Dance Company Artistic Director Robert Battle. They were able to provide some amazing insight and context to the film but also to their personal connections to Alvin and his company. Robert Battle opened the discussion with an impactful poem and I feel obligated to share it with you all now. It is titled ‘I Am a Black Woman’ by artist Mari Evans
I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
in the night
I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I/with these hands/cupped the life breath
from my issue in the canebrake
I lost Nat’s swinging body in a rain of tears
and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio
for Peace he never knew….I
learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill
Now my nostrils know the gas
and these trigger tire/d fingers
seek the softness in my warrior’s beard
I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
on me and be
In our extremely brief discourse the question was posed to Robert Battle: How do you find the strength to use your artistic voice when, as Alvin said himself, commitment can be unendingly taxing?
A: Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is hard. But it would be vastly harder for one to NOT do what he is called to do. To have a voice and not to use it, I think, is double death.
Mr. Battle would then go on to describe his childhood observing his family at church and how he longed to be a preacher. He would practice every day, reciting his father’s recordings of the day’s sermons. He paralleled his clergy practitioning to that of dance. This experience, to him, was the same as being wholly dedicated to the arts like Alvin was. To sink oneself completely into a task is a challenging hurdle but one must overcome it to become what they long for, to be what they are destined to be.
The next question was posed to Miss Wignot and was simply: What do you want people to gain from this film?
A: Love. That’s it.
The final question was again directed to Wignot and was: What pushes you to keep going when you feel like quitting?
A: The community of people around me. Specifically for this film, my collaborators, surrounding myself with people that tell you that you can do it, you are capable and you are enough. There are already enough people in the world who tell you that you can’t.
‘Ailey’ is a supremely beautiful portrait of a man touched by the curse of genius. The film is emotionally charged, sensuous and graceful. It is beautifully composed and masterfully created; created with such care for its subject matter that Alvin seems to come alive on the screen before you. His choreography seems to reanimate on screen in front of your very eyes, transforming the projected image of dancers into living, breathing people baring their souls on stage. This is an exceptional film and I would recommend it to anyone, but if you are at all interested in the arts I would implore you to see it. ‘Ailey’ is an absolute must for anyone involved in any theatrical arts be it actually on stage or in production; See it. The film is debuting currently in New York’s Lincoln Center and in two weeks gets its national theatrical release.
The film washes over you like a warm evening’s rain, calming, soothing, yet simultaneously depressing. There is a magical quality to ‘Ailey’ and there is a magical quality about Alvin, at large. The man transcends humanity and takes on a mythos, becoming a God before us. But deep down he is but a man dealing with insecurity, struggle, and loneliness just as we all do every day. This is a masterful effort from Jamila Wignot and really brings the man that was Alvin Ailey to the surface.
Director: Jamila Wignot
Music: Daniel Bernard Roumain
Cinematography: Naiti Gámez
By Tyler Sear
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Tyler Sear is an athlete and writer with a philosophical perspective to film. With aspirations to direct feature length films, Tyler brings a critical eye and philosophic approach to film, striving to give unbiased opinions while campaigning for equality and impartiality in Hollywood, today. This sense of morality makes Tyler uniquely qualified to address timely issues and recent releases within film. By tackling interesting topics, Tyler aligns with Hollywood Insider’s intentional mission to ignore sensationalized rumor and strive to present factual and entertaining content.