THE STORY – Alvin Ailey was a visionary artist who found salvation through dance. Told in his own words and through the creation of a dance inspired by his life, this immersive portrait follows a man who, when confronted by a world that refused to embrace him, determined to build one that would.
THE CAST – Alvin Ailey
THE TEAM – Jamila Wignot (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 82 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
Full disclosure: I have a dance background. I grew up studying ballet as my principle form of artistic expression. So when I saw a documentary on Alvin Ailey, perhaps the most influential choreographer of the 20th century, I was excited but also worried that it wouldn’t appeal to those outside of the dance world. Upon watching “Ailey,” however, I found it to be a moving and vibrant look into the life of an artist that is structured in such a way that any viewer can take something meaningful from it. It’s a humane study of a larger-than-life figure that also serves to examine the perils of fame and the danger of being placed on a pedestal.
Fascinated with dance from a young age but unable to find a place for himself in that world, Alvin Ailey made his name by choreographing his own pieces and eventually forming his own company: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His work quickly became a sensation, noted for its unique expressiveness and how it captured the African-American experience’s turbulence, pain, and joy. “Ailey” covers his life from start to finish, showing both the doors that success opens and the pressure that such notoriety can bring.
The key to this film’s success is Jamila Wignot’s clear direction. Perhaps her most notable choice is the way she shows footage of Ailey’s most well-known dance pieces. We see them presented in seamless montage, performed by various dance ensembles from different time periods across the past half-century. While the performers may be different and bring their own unique abilities to the pieces, what’s undeniably apparent in these various clips is Ailey’s strong, unshakeable voice and vision. These performances are often accompanied by eye-opening interviews with his dancers and colleagues, reflecting on what the specific pieces meant to them as individuals and the performance world as a whole. But Wignot also wisely knows when to let the performances speak for themselves without commentary. This is best exhibited when we’re shown moments from his titanic piece “Revelations.” The audience is allowed to simply experience the power of Ailey’s talent in an exuberant, breathtaking showcase.
Wignot also uses such performance footage in a way that brilliantly shows the influences Ailey took from his childhood and specific ethnic history. The dance performances from the height of Ailey’s success are occasionally overlaid with historical footage showing cultural practices and traditions of African-Americans from which Ailey was often inspired. The documentary shows how his choreography so often externalized, celebrated, and captured for future generations the specific cultural touchstones of his childhood and heritage as a Black man in America. Additionally, Wignot intercuts Ailey’s story with rehearsal footage of current day Alvin Ailey dancers performing pieces that subtly comment on what the documentary is telling its audience about its subject’s life.
“Ailey” doesn’t shy away from showing the hardships in its subject’s life. In fact, the film makes a clear point about how having a name that became synonymous with talent, and was often used as an emblem to show how far the country had supposedly come in terms of racial tolerance, made him feel isolated and unable to connect with other people on a personal level. It also minces no words in highlighting the hypocrisy of how the victims of the AIDS epidemic who were in the arts, which included Ailey, were so often celebrated for their cultural contributions but simultaneously shamed for their offstage activities. Most damning is a long, fiery piece of interview footage from choreographer Bill T. Jones about this very subject. This commentary is brilliantly accompanied by President Reagan’s darkly ironic footage, whose actions and intentional neglect unquestionably helped increase both the spread of the disease and the stigma associated with those who developed it, presenting Ailey with his Kennedy Center Honors.
With “Ailey,” Jamila Wignot has created a moving portrait of an artist that celebrates his undeniable impact without resorting to hagiography. It’s stirring, joyful, and a reminder of the power and potential of artistic expression.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A moving, vibrant documentary that tells the story of an essential artist while retaining his humanity, thanks to Jamila Wignot’s propulsive, perceptive direction.
THE BAD – None