Film Review

Ailey (documentary film) by Jamila Wignot

Written by: Tiisetso Dladla

‘Ailey’, a documentary film by Jamila Wignot, feels like a glorious visual testimony of a life that shaped the lives of so many talented dancers, who were born with the gift of angels’ feet. The director previously directed the Peabody, Emmy, and NAACP award-winning PBS miniseries African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. This Alvin Ailey biographical documentary seems like a continuation of the talented filmmaker’s dynamic film repertoire.

The film synopsis describes the documentary as an immersive portrait of dance pioneer Alvin Ailey’s journey from dancer to founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The film is told through the voice-over of his own words, archival footage and recollections of him by former dancers, colleagues and friends.

“Black joy” was a phrase used to introduce the film at its 2021 Sundance premiere. The film captures the essence of this sentiment in the montage archival sequence of a procession of women and men in white, making their way to the river, to connect with the divine and spiritually claim their collective humanity. Followed by the flap of the white umbrella, the lift and dance of the white shirt, and the flow of the cloth moving like the ocean at high tide: the unforgettable groundbreaking choreography of Revelations, the signature work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

A still from Ailey by Jamila Wignot, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jack Mitchell.

An early scene sets the tone for the journey the filmmakers are taking us on: we hear choreographer Renee Harris speaking in dancer’s tongue; the notes a choreographer gives his dancers that enters their ears and acts like an invisible hand, twisting and conducting each dancer to the precise count of the music. The placement of this scene so early in the documentary was a purposeful choice that prepared the audience for the artful approach the film embarks on narratively, in tandem with its description of Ailey as a pied piper of sorts, calling all those possessed by the spirit of dance to bring their tap shoes, point shoes, jazz shoes or sneakers and fill the shrine on West 55th Street in New York City with the joyful sound of tapping feet. The skillful weaving of the footage of present-day Ailey dancers rehearsing for the production of Lazarus, with the footage of Mr. Ailey himself working with his dancers during his time, gives the witnessing of this ritual, immortality.

A choreographer I know once shared an insight with me that dance is one of the hardest artistic callings to answer. She said that a dancer only has the moment when the music begins and she stretches her leg in response, and the final cord accompanied by the last gesture of her movement, to express herself in the art. She cannot revisit the moment and finetune the art the way a painter walks in and out of their studio and finesses their work. After completion of the work, the painter can hold the finished product in his or her hands and showcase it for years to come. The dancer only has that dance, that moment.

‘Ailey’ gives us a window to experience its founder’s resilience; witnessing his journey from the moment that he arrived in New York City from Texas to pursue his dream. Mr. Ailey initially faced more closed doors than open ones. All he had was his body, the ultimate instrument, his soul and the conviction that he could move others through his movements. That gift, paired with an unparalleled work ethic, took him from dancer, to choreographer and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

I began to understand what a collective appointment to engage with the divine looks like when Mr. Ailey described the role of dance and the dancer as “blood memory.” Great poetry is often not heard at first recital. Each word and its placement are so intentionally placed that the audience can only recall a phrase or two but are mostly left with the way the poem made them feel. That was the care that Annukka Lilja, the editor of Ailey, took in each frame of this documentary. In a scene where Alvin Alley describes his lover Abdullah walking down a fire escape and never coming back, a visual storyteller would be tempted to convey that through animation or reenactment. It is conveyed with an image of New York City on a damp night and the city lights decorating a dark alley. The use of archival footage between images of performances, rehearsals and interviews, were stitched so deliberately that the whole film felt like the love and warmth of a quilt made by the receiver’s most beloved.

The music in the film took you back into the seat you sat in, if you were fortunate enough to have borne witness to the magic of an Ailey production. The score did something surprising: it put you in his ears. It felt as though you were so intimately connected to him that you could hear his heartbeat, so much so that the film’s coverage of his battle with HIV, slowed your pulse to beat with his. It is rare that a biographical documentary talks about the past but keeps your mind so aware of the present. An interviewee talked about the feeling people had during the AIDS epidemic in New York City. The feeling that you never knew who it was going to take next and you hoped it was not you or one of your loved ones.

The film is deceptive in its title as at first glance you might mistakenly believe that it is solely the story of one extraordinary choreographer, dancer and visionary; however, the tale, much like its title, does not aim to share a single story but rather a tide of stories. Stories of the many lives that a courageous and inspirational soul allowed to shine with his, be it before or after his transition to the next life. Mr. Ailey’s legacy lives beyond a building in midtown Manhattan. “His last breath was an inhale,” was a line Ms. Judith Jamison so eloquently shared of her recollection of the last moment she had with him. “We are his exhale,” and this documentary was a continuation of the flow of his efforts, blowing life into our steps, into each new day.