Lerone D. Wilson’s documentary provides an overview of the challenges faced by African American painters during the past half-century. The film interviews a number of prominent artists – including the late Benny Andrews, Howardena Pindell and Ann Tanksley – who detail a shockingly large number of embarrassments and humiliations: art teachers that chastised them for painting black subjects, art dealers that pointedly refused to put their work on exhibit or introduce them to prominent collectors, and would-be patrons who openly questioned whether the artists were capable of painting white people.
The film goes to great lengths to detail the business side of the art world, including the financial matters involved in setting up gallery space, the pricing of artwork (collector Ron Ollie notes that he was able to amass wide holdings because African American art is mostly undervalued), and the absence of African Americans from the influential clique of prominent art critics. The artists also debate what is expected of African American painters: should they simply focus on the socio-political history of their community or branch out into non-racial subject matter?
Strangely, the film omits mention of the African American artists that managed to have highly prominent careers in the post-World War II years – the impact of such well-regarded artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat are not cited.
To its credit, the film offers a rich selection of the artists’ output, and the depth and scope of imagination and talent on display is staggering. Special kudos are required for the subtle music score created by the Magali Souriau Trio and Lenae Harris.
Special features on this DVD release include a short documentary on Benny Andrews’ career and extended interviews with the artists featured in the film. This film is highly recommended for anyone with a deep interest in the African American experience and the secrets of the art world.