Sometimes your name becomes bigger than yourself.
As someone who knew nothing about Alvin Ailey before watching Jamila Wignot‘s documentary Ailey, it surprised me how relevant the film proves to what’s happening today. How can you watch this man’s trajectory towards the height of his profession and subsequent fall towards a stay in a mental institution without thinking about the mental wellness conversations surrounding Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles? He lived in a time where strength as an outward appearance became a crucial piece to success whether it was a lie or not. He couldn’t afford to stop. He couldn’t afford to put his own well being above the art. And as we see from the hate of those chastising the aforementioned athletes for commendably pressing pause, many still believe such suppression is a genius’s burden.
We hear from a few interviewees about what it’s like to be a Black performer in America—celebrities white America can applaud to pretend racism doesn’t exist only until the point where those performers’ utility no longer serves their needs. Osaka is a tennis draw who sells tickets and therefore shoulders complaints when those purchases no longer supply access to that which the buyer feels entitled. Biles is so good that her sport thought aloud about changing its rules to level the playing field. She’s also the face of her nation on a global scale and thus rendered a disappointing failure when daring to take a breath. Vocally and angrily demanding instant gratification over prolonged stability reveals a sad truth: Black artists are too often reduced to products.
Wignot does well to not do the same by focusing on the emotional cost her subject paid. Bill T. Jones is quick to call Ailey’s demon of choice self-loathing and it makes sense considering every master of his/her craft questions their own achievements. Imposter syndrome sets in to cripple one’s ability to view themselves objectively. They begin to not only worry that they’ll be rejected by society, but that they’ve somehow tricked society into getting this far in the first place. That’s a lot of pressure to bear and it only increases with each new accolade. Victory stops being a reward and quickly transforms into a necessity. A descent, small or large, becomes inevitable as a result. And it, more than the work, becomes what the public remembers.
That’s the casualty of consumer culture in a post-capitalist twenty-first century world. Men and women are now just as much a commodity as anything else and multi-billion-dollar corporations declare themselves the manufacturers of their fame. It’s about sponsorship and revenue rather than health and identity. Would Ailey still be creating if he understood the leverage he held like Osaka and Biles? It’s tough to say considering he did eventually leave the institution and continue his career as a choreographer before succumbing to AIDS. But maybe he wouldn’t have been so isolated and alone. Maybe the space to not be self-destructive could have altered certain decisions or allowed him to seek help earlier than he did. Every choice we make starts as a ripple, but ultimately becomes a wave.
I think it therefore says more about Ailey than Wignot that she doesn’t delve further into his private life. It appears that which lands on-screen is all there is when those closest to him—his company of dancers—admit they didn’t really know him beyond the work itself. Whether it was a cause or result (or both), Ailey’s name did become bigger than the man. When Rennie Harris is recruited to choreograph a dance to honor the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s sixtieth anniversary, he dives into the work for inspiration rather than the life. That group is what remains. And while it’s inextricably connected to Ailey the person, it also connects with Judith Jamison, George Faison, and all the others who helped shape it in his image.
To watch the footage of his ballets (“Revelations”, “Masekela Langage”, and “Cry” among them) is to witness the beauty of what they created together and why he was able to stir audiences to their feet with protest art that spoke about the Black experience without words that have become too easily ignored through the constant politicization of everything around us. Wignot mixes in the stage recordings with contextually relevant archival film depicting a people and community regardless of whether the boy at its center is Ailey. His work transcended himself even though it was all extremely personal to him. It gave Black America a voice that spoke to those who wouldn’t have voluntarily come to listen. He moved immovable souls and that must never be discounted.
That’s what we learn here. That’s the message that shines through what is pretty much your usual generic biographical documentary. Using Harris’ rehearsal sessions as a through-line is interesting despite not really having an endgame beyond its utility as loose chapter bookends embodying many of the aspects that Wignot compiled in-between. It’s youth, beginnings, fame, decline, return, and demise with talking head interviews, recollections from Ailey’s own words, and those glorious performances that you wish you could stay in the theater and watch in full. The love everyone involved still has for him twenty-five-plus years later is obvious and inspiring, but is there more to him waiting to be unearthed? Probably. As an emotionally resonate introduction to his angels and demons, however, you can really ask for more.
courtesy of Neon