Emmy-winning director Jamila Wignot’s Ailey, a compelling and moving portrait of a towering figure in modern dance, Alvin Ailey, world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. “Unlike many documentaries about artists, Ailey gives us a substantial insight into his creative process”, writes James Kleinmann in his five star review of the film for The Queer Review“, describing it as “a celebration of the art of dance, those who devote their lives to it, and the power of artistic expression”.
With his own words and choreography at the heart of the film, Ailey is reminiscent of the work of Marlon Riggs in its poetic, emotional and intellectual approach, as well as Wignot’s profound contextualisation of Ailey’s life in the history of the African American experience, there’s also an acknowledgement of the trailblazing Ailey having lived at the intersection of racism and homophobia as he forged his career, establishing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, aged just 27.
Wignot’s previous directing credits include two episodes of the Peabody, Emmy, and NAACP award-winning series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which chronicles the five hundred year history of African Americans; Town Hall, co-directed with Sierra Pettingill, following Tea Party activists determined to unseat President Obama; the Peabody Award-winning Triangle Fire, and Emmy-nominated Walt Whitman.
Ahead of Ailey opening in New York theaters on Friday July 23rd, and expanding nationally on August 6th, Jamila Wignot spoke exclusively with James Kleinmann about allowing Alvin Ailey’s work to speak for itself, crafting two intimate and romantic sequences in the film with queer imagery, and her desire to convey the man behind the icon and his enduring legacy.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: taking you back a few years, what was your reaction when the idea of directing a documentary about Alvin Ailey was first pitched to you and what was your own personal experience of his work at that stage?
Jamila Wignot: “I couldn’t believe that this film had found me. When it was pitched to me my head exploded into confetti because it’s a company whose work I love. I actually have some friends who have danced for the Ailey company. In that early moment though I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Ailey’s biography. As a documentarian I was excited about making a film in which visual language was going to mean so much. Selfishly, for me it was as much about the experimentation that I was going to get to do as it was about these beautiful dance works. I knew that the film had to do justice to this dance form, which is abstract in a way. So that was the early part of it, other than me saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes! Let me sign on the dotted line! Let’s go right now!'”
One of my favorite elements of the film is not only getting to see such captivating rehearsal and performance footage, but also the breathing space you allow for it. Why did you want the work itself to be so central in the film?
“That collaborative effort with my editor Annukka Lilja was so crucial to being able to do that. My own bias, when I’m watching documentaries is to say, ‘Stop telling me what to think and just let me see the things’. If you haven’t had exposure to the Ailey company before seeing the film then I believe that the work is powerful enough to speak for itself. I also wanted people to live in it and experience it. When I happened to be taken to a performance of Ailey’s work as a student, nobody was sitting next to me interpreting it for me. I wanted that space for interpretation in the film because I crave that so often in a documentary, to be in a space of wonder or questioning or just overwhelmed by beauty. So that was something that we thought about a lot and then the question became, how long can you sustain that for? How much space can dance take up in a film before it starts to lose meaning? We’re dealing with excerpts of full dance works, so it’s always a challenge to make sure that the meaning of a particular phrase or moment in a dance is made clear. We had to be very selective.”
I love the audio interview recordings of Ailey which you include. How key was that particular archive for you, both as a beautiful resource to use in the film, but also as a guide that helped shape your approach to telling his story on screen?
“That audio is from interviews that Mr. Ailey gave from 1988 to 1989, so during the last year of his life. They were part of putting together his autobiography. Those were essential. In those interviews he was relaxed in his speaking. He wasn’t performing or pitching the company. He wasn’t trying to sell tickets. He wasn’t even explaining himself. He was just assessing his own life. It was interesting for all of us making the film to consider that these were the things that he wanted to share. It became our foundation. We thought let’s go with him as he rediscovers who he is and what shaped and informed him. Then everything else became layered on top of that.”
Where there isn’t actual archive footage of something that Ailey is talking about, such as his childhood in Texas or teenage years in Los Angeles, you use some beautiful visuals. In one particular moment where he’s talking about an intimate, romantic swim with a man, we see two men skinny dipping in a lake. How did that gorgeous sequence come together?
“That moment of sexual awakening struck us in its candor and the beautiful way that he talked about it. There’s this quality to the way he’s talking about that—and the way he talks throughout—that gives you a sense of somebody who is very sensual and alive to the world around them, someone who was paying a great deal of attention. So we created a visual interpretation of what it might be like to be crashing through the bramble of the Texas woods, finding your way to this water, and then having this sexual discovery that for him was quite beautiful. We wanted to leave it there for interpretation, to just put it out there, but there’s also an imaginative leap and we’re filling in visual gaps. We worked with two wonderful composers on the film, and the piece in that sequence is by Sultana Isham. It has a wonderful energy and charge to it and a beauty. So all elements are at work there, both visual and sonic, along with Mr. Ailey’s narration.”
Is the archive footage of the men swimming in that sequence from the 1940s?
“Yes, it’s archive from the 40s, but the underwater shots are contemporary and processed in postproduction.”
He didn’t have a longterm partner, but at one point we hear Ailey talk adoringly about Abdullah, the man he met in Paris and then brought back to New York with him. Again the audio is paired with some really beautiful visuals; there’s the archive footage of New York City in 70s, a glimpse of the popular cruising area of the West Side piers, and then a flash of James Bidgood’s 1971 queer classic Pink Narcissus. What did you want to express with that montage?
“That sequence was incredibly challenging for us because we wanted it to feel like the time period, 1971, but we also wanted it to have an intimacy, a sense of a sensual experience, one that’s happening privately. We were struggling with that because with depictions of queer life at that time, you find a lot of dance floors and clubs, but none of that seemed quite right. So we kept digging and digging, and looking at frames within frames, trying to get at an intimate, beautiful, delicate closeness. The hand on the door of the car as they’re coming into the city is actually from a Ken Jacobs film.”
“Discovering Pink Narcissus was sheer accident. We wanted all of the footage in Ailey to have a certain kind of point of view feel to it, and there’s something in James Bidgood’s film of adoringly looking at a lover. So when we started digging around for queer cinema and found that film we really appreciated that about it. It’s not Abdullah, but it’s an interpretation of the kind of romantic experience that Mr. Ailey might have had with a young man who captured his attention. There’s something sparkly and bright and romantic in it, and in the audio recording he’s in this moment of trying to finally access that side of himself which he has ignored. We use a piece of narration at the top of the film where he talks about having to sacrifice everything, and that personal relations are impossible when you’re touring that many months out of the year. It’s clear at that moment when he is confronting his own mortality, he’s now thinking maybe this is a part of his life that he should pay attention to. We wanted there to be a kind of romance and beauty in that, because that’s how he described it.”
Decades on, Alvin Ailey’s legacy endures and one of the ways that you demonstrate that is through showing us choreographer Rennie Harris in rehearsals creating a piece to mark the Ailey company’s 60th anniversary. I wondered to what extent you might have seen yourself and Rennie Harris as mirroring each other in that you were both attempting to encapsulate the man and his work in one piece?
“Absolutely, I was attracted to that idea of there being something meta in the making of this film. The rehearsal process of Rennie’s dance piece was the first thing that we shot, so I was in the midst of my own research as Rennie Harris was trying to figure out how to interpret this life in a dance work. I think it was a challenge for both of us. We both felt the weight of responsibility on us. That moment where Rennie says, ‘I mean, it’s 60 years’, then leans back in the chair, I felt that way throughout the whole thing too. Things became clearer to me in the edit, which is where documentaries take shape.”
“I knew that it was not going to be enough to just tell a straight story, and it’s absolutely not enough to do that in a dance work. Rennie was trying to get at an essence and in some ways I felt similarly that I wanted people to get close to and go on a journey with Alvin Ailey, but I also wanted the film to feel like an epic saga, in the way that his dance works do. At the same time, what Rennie is discovering of course informs where we decided to go with the film because I was looking for places of connection between his interpretation and what we were discovering, so the two pieces really speak to each other. His enquiry helped shape our enquiry.”
Having spent so much time thinking about Mr. Ailey’s life and his work, how might you sum up what he stood for and his legacy?
“I think his legacy is love. He’s somebody who was in search of self-love and self-acceptance. He is giving a community that love. I think the idea of what he’s saying is when you create something where there was nothing before, what’s left is the love you poured into that space in that collaboration. I do believe that ‘His name is known’, as Carmen de Lavallade says in the film, but I wanted people to understand what it took in every way for him to get there. To recognize his delicacy, his vulnerability, and his insecurity.”
“In many ways, I think the messages that his dance works are rooted in are messages that I receive and that serve me and are important and healing, but they’re also messages that he needed himself. I believe, as Sarita Allen says in the film, dance was his catharsis, and as she expresses in one moment, he is the woman in black; each dance work is him working something out for himself as well as for the individual man. He didn’t have it all figured out and this process of excavation and presentation was his own effort to be able to say, ‘I am. Can you stand in your own being and say I am?’ I think that’s important to remember. With icons, they create these amazing things and we love them, but I wanted to show what it took to become that icon.”
By James Kleinmann
Opening in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Film at Lincoln Center on Friday July 23rd, expanding nationwide August 6th.