Sundance 2021 review: Ailey (Jamila Wignot)

Let us begin by jumping forward to the end: Alvin Ailey died from AIDS complications while he attempted to hide his condition from everyone around him, as many others did. And this process of self-editing, of selecting what to perform and more importantly to whom to perform, is at the heart of Jamila Wignot’s film, Ailey. A work that is more concerned with investigating the real man behind the icon than trying to compress a whole life in a 90-minute documentary. Once more, let’s not forget that we are beginning at the end, so that maybe the man sought by Wignot’s film will reveal himself to us as well.

Alvin Ailey achieved everything he could ever have dreamt about. He had notoriety, he was respected by his peers, and he got to travel across the globe while doing what he loved the most: dancing. Nevertheless, instead of fetishizing his fame the documentary makes it clear through its choices of footage and conducted interviews that such success was also the reason why a responsibility was placed on Alvin Ailey’s shoulders that no man should have to bear: the responsibility of speaking on behalf of others, in this case the African American community and its pain, suffering, and traditions in a place like the US. This is not to say that Ailey refused to do so. On the contrary, the artist embraced this task and brought it to the stage repeatedly via works like Revelations, Memoria, and Phases, whereas the man himself remained a mystery under such an obligation.

As one of his former dancers mentions in a scene, there was the company, and there was Ailey’s absence as a man yet never as a choreographer. More clues need to be given, and this inquiry into the man behind the world-famous dance company continues with one of the most meaningful moments of the film when footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan giving Ailey a medal is shown, as the narration asks us the real meaning behind that celebration. In this moment the audience is invited to acknowledge the fact that his works were so celebrated by white people because it was good for them to be seen praising a black artist doing a spectacle about the perils of black people. It felt like a pat on the back, a badge white liberal men were so eager to wear. The same applies to the moment when the government took the company across the globe to show how diverse American culture was; it was never a recognition of Ailey’s genius but a way to say, “Look how far America has come.” On top of that, being used was not the only price he had to pay; for to be America’s favorite African American artist also implies a respectability that society did not see in gay people, especially during a time in which AIDS was seen as something sent by the heavens, a punishment to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Now let us go to the beginning, and in this sense Wignot’s film has two. The first, a scene in which the one and only Cicely Tyson introduces the already celebrated Alvin Ailey in a ceremony. The second, through footage of black communities across the US South over which we hear Ailey’s voice talking about moments from his childhood years, such as the memory of seeing his mother on her knees cleaning white people’s homes, and a day on which he almost drowned and he was rescued by a boy who saved his life and sparked his sexuality. What binds these and other moments together is simply movement. His mother’s as she cleaned houses, he and the boy who saved him as they rubbed their bodies against each other, or people on the streets moving to somewhere else in hopes of a better life. Movement therefore became the tool he found to communicate and soothe the turmoil of feelings inside his head.

The documentary ends, and no answer is given. Perhaps there is none, and the mystery is supposed to linger. After all, our life’s narratives are presented to others like a film after leaving the editing table. Some things are shown, highlighted, and others are left hidden in the corner of a dark room. In the end, what remains is the complexity of the character who inspired the film. Ailey was a dancer, a choreographer, a man, African American, gay, and many other things. But he was also alone and made a sanctuary out of his stages to help him to live on as respectfully and artistically as was expected of him. As the Langston Hughes poem Black Dancers goes: “We / Who have nothing to lose / must sing and dance / Before the riches / of the world / overcome / us.” And so Ailey did. He danced and danced before his dance was taken from him by the world.