Review by Camden Ferrell
Alvin Ailey was a choreographer who was a titan in his time. Aside from his work as a dance and activist, he founded the world-class Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Director Jamila Wignot’s new documentary, appropriately titled Ailey, examines his life and career. This film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary has an interesting visual style and execution, but it can often lack substance especially for those who aren’t knowledgeable about Ailey’s career.
Ailey was born in Texas in 1931, and this documentary briefly details his upbringing. Wignot’s storytelling abilities start off very strong. She utilizes archive footage to capture the essence of his rearing despite the absence of actual primary sources from his childhood. What proves to be a skillful and promising start soon diminishes as we explore his career.
One of my main qualms with the film is how its meditative nature often substitutes style for substance. We don’t get a coherent progression of his career, and it seems to skip over integral parts of his story. This isn’t inherently a problem, but it’s a problem for viewers like me who are not familiar with Ailey’s work. As much as the slower and more visually driven footage is interesting, it doesn’t have nearly the same effect without a strong narrative underlying the film.
The talking heads from members of the dance company and those who knew Ailey are decent. They supplement the narrative as well as they can, but it still feels like there’s blanks in the story that could have been fleshed out more. Ailey’s death in 1989 means that he wasn’t able to give any modern interviews for the film, but the archival footage does a sufficient job of conveying his spirit and personality.
Despite the odd pacing and narrative shortcomings, the film does occasionally make up for it with strong execution. The archival footage is great, and Wignot has a great eye. There are one or two powerfully edited sequences accompanied by gorgeous music that flourish and elevate the film. Unfortunately, this level of artistry is far from consistent. The documentary has a fascinating and multi-faceted subject and some proven talent executing it, but as a whole, it doesn’t feel as comprehensive or insightful as it could have been.
Fans of Ailey’s work may be pleased with Ailey and its meditative artistry, but for those unfamiliar with him, this isn’t the most helpful introduction to his career. The film has all the ingredients for a great documentary, but aside from a select few moments, the potential is left mostly untapped.
Ailey will be in theaters in NY on July 23, in LA on July 30, and more theaters nationwide on August 6.