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Ailey

By Josiah Teal | July 23, 2021

NOW IN THEATERS! Ailey chronicles the life of prolific dance pioneer Alvin Ailey. Told through flashes between archived footage, interviews, and modern video of his dance company, the documentary depicts the career of an icon as his closest companions knew him. Taking a personal approach, director Jamila Wignot shows Ailey at his most passionate and vulnerable, all while emphasizing the artistic storytelling of dance.

Born during the Great Depression, Alvin Ailey’s family moved from town to town across the vast plains of Texas. Looking for job security, he and his mom moved to L.A. Here he saw his first professional dance show, which inspired him to lead a life on stage. So, Ailey (eventually) took up dancing and swayed and twirled his way across the globe. Covering a career spanning from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, Ailey displays the struggles and triumphs of life on the stage.

“…chronicles the life of prolific dance pioneer Alvin Ailey.”

The dance footage is incredible. I realize this almost goes without saying in a film about dance, but it truly is phenomenal. It’s one thing to hear these masters of craft talk about dancing, but it is remarkable to witness the emotions, passions, and dedication in real-time. Beyond the dancing itself, Wignot uses those sequences to accent the social issues Ailey faced throughout his life. The movie highlights the adversity of life as a black gay man in a time of racial injustice, discrimination, and the looming AIDS epidemic. One of the most moving scenes surrounds the discussion of sociocultural issues. As that conversation looms large, modern dancers parallel the Civil Rights movement and racial tensions in the present day.

I must admit this is a tricky film to nail down. Ailey is a notably informative documentary and is possibly more relevant than ever. However, is it entertaining? Should a film that discusses such heavy topics be over-the-top fun – even captivating? The dance footage is mesmerizing, and the movie is undoubtedly a wealth of information on Alvin Ailey’s legacy. However, it does little to separate itself from the pack of countless other art documentaries.

For me, the relevance outweighs my enjoyment of Ailey, but this relevance bears a massive weight. Alvin Ailey has a fantastic story, but this might be a narrative that lends itself more to a bio-pic than a detail-oriented documentary.

Ailey screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ailey (2021)

Directed and Written: Jamila Wignot

Starring: Alvin Ailey, Rennie Harris, Carmen De Lavallade, Don Martin, Linda Kent, Mary Barnette, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

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"…the dance footage is mesmerizing..."

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