BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS -- A Congratulatory Art Documentary Exploring an Interesting Perspective on History
Review by Sean Boelman
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts tells the story of a Black artist with whose work a majority of viewers probably aren’t familiar. And while the film offers an interesting glimpse into the history of African-American art, it gets a bit too caught up in congratulation to be as revelatory as it had the potential to be.
The movie tells the story of the eponymous artist who, after being freed from slavery, produced a prolific body of art as a homeless man in Montgomery. Even though Traylor’s art is a bit of an acquired taste, there is no doubt that the life he lived is extraordinary and this secondhand account of his tale is pretty fascinating.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf’s biggest success is in making the audience feel like Traylor’s story is one that already should have been known. Within the art world, Traylor’s recognition is relatively recent, and so Wolf wisely chooses to present this documentary as the audience discovering this artist, as a majority of viewers likely will be doing so.
Some of the more fascinating portions of the film deal with the historical context of Traylor’s work. Analysis of his drawings is presented as to how his images reflect the society of the time, from slavery through the era of segregation. These are portions of history that are often discussed, but rarely from this perspective, and it’s quite interesting to see.
On the other hand, the portions of the movie exploring Traylor’s artistic contributions aren’t as effective. The film features plenty of his work, but focuses more on analyzing what it means than what makes it artistically interesting. A brief discussion of how he experimented with unique mediums is compelling, but in this regard, Wolf’s art documentary leaves something to be desired.
A majority of the interviews in the movie are from contemporary artists, scholars, and critics, and while they are somewhat informational, they also seem to adulate Traylor’s work. It’s understandable for documentaries like this to contain a lot of praise, but there isn’t enough evidence given outside of the historical argument to warrant this level of on-screen commendation.
Wolf keeps his film short, at a mere seventy-five minutes, but this is one of those cases where shorter did not equal better. Often, art documentaries feel like they can be made more concise, but in this case, there are a lot of missing elements despite having all this extra time to spare. Wolf could (and should) have gone into more depth on some of his arguments.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts makes an argument for the eponymous artist as an underappreciated master to mixed success. The historical angle here is excellent, but audiences will be left wanting more from it as an art documentary.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts hits virtual cinemas on April 16. A list of participating locations can be found here.