There tends to be a problem surrounding documentaries about key cultural artists; how do you show their work? Jamila Wignot’s loving and emotionally raw portrait of Alvin Ailey solves the problem. It is clear, whether you’ve seen Swan Lake a hundred times or only familiar with nutcrackers as a holiday decor, there is no mistaking why Ailey is one of the most important artists of the last hundred years.

Ailey might not break any narrative and cinematic ground as a documentary, but it is a gorgeous evocation of artistry. The film traces Alvin Ailey from his roots in Texas to his tragic death. This is too vast a gulf for anything to be comprehensive of Ailey the artist and man, but Wignot isn’t necessarily trying to present a full life on screen. She is interested in capturing the essence of him as an artist.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Told alternating between talking heads, archival interviews, and archival footage of Ailey’s most important works, the film centers on his work dealing explicitly with the history of Black America. It’s clear his responsibilities as an artist weighed heavily on him, feeling the need to isolate himself from others to never mix Alvin Ailey the man with Alvin Ailey the artist.

While America was grappling with the civil rights movement, he took works like Revelations on the road from places like the deep south to Japan. The company was on one bus, equipment, luggage, and people, all together. He wanted to build bridges with his art, let people into the black experience in a manner that might be impossible without something like dance.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Filmed stage choreography can be a tedious watch, just like watching a filmed stage play can be. There is an inherent electricity to being in a room with a live production, the energy is almost incapable of translating onto a screen. Ailey’s choreography is dynamic; the vigor and pure bombast of it breaks through the screen. The translation of his work highlights the anger, pain, sexuality, and pure athleticism of each dancer’s unique body.

This won’t be the definitive text on Alvin Ailey as an artist, or it shouldn’t be. Honestly, it would be hard to accomplish that at a mere eighty minutes. To flesh out the importance of him as a wunderkind artistic talent and the cultural impact of the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre, there would need to be twice the material we see here. Luckily, Barry Jenkins is currently working on a film or television show, it isn’t sure which right now, on Ailey. This will serve as an excellent primer for that and could work in tandem.

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