Film Review: ‘Ailey,’ Evocative Portrait of an American Icon

by Alexander C. Kafka

During the pandemic, my family binge-watched the National Geographic Genius miniseries about Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Aretha Franklin. We imagined ourselves the producers for such a project and considered whom we would select as geniuses to feature.

On my short list would surely be the choreographer, dancer, and entrepreneur Alvin Ailey, whose dance company has become a lasting juggernaut of artistry, entertainment, and pride. 

The entertainment aspect has sometimes bred jealousy and resentment. Some critics have focused on the company’s beautiful, athletic bodies they see as stereotyped, idealized symbols of the Black experience. Ailey scoffed at that critique. If his astonishingly skilled and conditioned dancers raised the physical bar for American concert dance, so be it. And if audiences could understand and relate to his work, all the better. 

“The Black pieces we do that come from blues, spirituals, and gospels are part of what I am,” he shot back. “They are as honest and truthful as we can make them. I’m interested in putting something on stage that will have a very wide appeal without being condescending, that will reach an audience and make it part of the dance, that will get everybody into the theater. If it’s art and entertainment, thank God, that’s what I want to be.”

The pride component is complex. Ailey’s work celebrates Black American pride, of course, but audiences around the world relate and respond to his themes of oppression, struggle, and transcendence. Ailey’s multiracial company became an international craze, through State Department touring, before it became an American one. 

The pride, at least in retrospect, is gay pride too, but finding that in Ailey’s work is a hide-and-seek exercise, as is finding Ailey, the man himself, within the larger-than-life brand his name became. He was out as a gay man, but also very private, not just to the public but to much of his ostensibly inner circle. And all indications are that he was also quite solitary, and probably lonely, even at the height of his success.

The personal history of Ailey the artist and that elusive quality of Ailey the man are wonderfully conveyed in an enlightening and moving new PBS American Masters documentary directed by Jamila Wignot. In production notes, Wignot says she is inspired by subjectively oriented documentarians like Tom Volf and Raoul Peck. But also “by the poetic cinematic approaches of films such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. My aim was to blend these influences into a sensorial, poetic documentary portrait.” 

That she does, with editor Annukka Lilja and archival editor Rebecca Kent, to a spectral, minimalistic music score by Daniel Bernard Roumain. They take us back to Depression-era rural Texas and Ailey’s hardscrabble childhood as he was raised by a single mom chasing jobs picking cotton and cleaning white folks’ houses. “Texas was a tough place to be. I mean if you were Black you were nothing,” Ailey says in one of the soft-spoken audio overlays from interviews. 

We hear, also, from friends and colleagues from the early days, and from Robert Battle, Judith Jamison, Masazumi Chaya, and other stars, company leaders, rehearsal directors, and so on. 

The seeds of the iconic work Revelations, as well as Blues Suite, Cry, and other pieces are explored through black-and-white historical footage reflecting the deep poverty and racism, but also the joy, beauty, and Black community warmth of Ailey’s farm-country boyhood. On the child’s eyes are etched the man-artist’s visions. “I remember the sunsets. I remember people moving in the twilight.” 

There are also murmurs in the memories of another community he was discovering in a strange, harrowing, cathartic baptism. 

“I remember my good friend Chauncey Green,” Ailey recalls. “We’d run through the fields together, through the brambles, being Texas boys. Chauncey saved my life. One day I fell into an enormous pool of water, almost drowned. But he grabbed me, and as he pushed all the water out he also lay down on top of me. We used to sort of rub up against each other and all that.”

Suffocation, salvation, revelation. Mortality, friendship, sensuality. The incident feels like a kaleidoscopic condensing of so many themes and moods throughout Ailey’s work, and the filmmakers explore it with imagery that feels immediate and intimate. 

Ailey follows the artist from Texas to Los Angeles to New York as he is inspired by the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to take the leap from gymnastics and football into dance. His talents brought him to Broadway and to Lester Horton’s studio before he ventured toward forming a company of his own. (The film would have benefited from some clearer cues about his exact career timeline and trajectory.)

The going was tough for the new-found company in the late 50s and for most of the following decade. In an early cross-country tour, dancers, sets, costumes, and luggage were all crowded onto a single bus. Every day a new city — rehearsal, performance, a bite to eat, and a few hours’ sleep before reboarding. But by the 1970s, boom! The company went big, and then, by the 80s, was iconic.

The 82-minute film is framed by the choreographer Rennie Harris’s creation of a 2018 two-act ballet, Lazarus, that was inspired by Ailey’s life and times. Naiti Gámez, the documentary’s director of photography, takes a quietly immersive approach to the rehearsal sequences as Harris choreographs, on these exceptional dancers, sections that range from chilling to thrilling. The work brings home the way Ailey’s own aesthetic foundation has been furthered and extrapolated by his proteges and guest artists, and by subsequent generations inspired by him.

But the film is, to its credit, by no means a simple hagiography. Its presiding tones are melancholy, because Ailey in some ways seems to have lost himself in his workaholism, fame, and success. He lost himself, his fellow artists explain, also to the mythology of his dances and his company brand. It was a trademark of perseverance and ascendance. It made no space for anguish in the wake of his dancer friend Joyce Trisler’s untimely death in her 40s, or Ailey’s sudden desertion by a lover, Abdullah, whom he met in Paris and brought back to New York with him. It made no space for the mental discord that required Ailey’s hospitalization. It made no space for the AIDS that took his life in 1989 at age 58. 

The dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones says insightfully of Ailey’s final chapter: 

“Men are men on Ailey’s stage and women are women on Ailey’s stage, and they are exemplary, and they are the survivors of racism and slavery, and they are beautiful and they are strong, and they will live forever. … And you’re telling me that they have sex? And they have sex that could kill them? You’re telling me Mr. Ailey himself? Oh, that’s too much. That’s too much. We have to edit that out of the history. And he participated in the editing…. He was alone. What community of gay people was he with that could say, ‘Alvin, this is happening to us’?”

Ailey is alone no longer. His revelations yield new revelations, his courage new kinds of courage. This fine film takes a step back to consider the vast contours of a hugely productive artistic life — and afterlife. Still, the documentary’s largely impressionistic approach leaves plenty of material to be developed in more detail in another Genius series. And if producers tackle such a project, I hope their first call is to Jamila Wignot, who obviously has a profound understanding and appreciation of this complicated and foundational American artist.