Freedom In Movement: Director Jamila Wignot Talks ‘Ailey’ & Black Expression In The 21st Century

Jamila Wignot is no stranger to creating projects that deserve major fanfare. Best known for her work on The African Americans and Many Rivers To Cross, the award-winning filmmaker has earned Peabody, Emmy, and NAACP distinctions, and continues to build a legacy that impacts and inspires the next generation of artists and filmmakers.

Her latest project, Ailey, which is a resonating biography told through Alvin Ailey’s own words, interviews, and archival footage, was born out of a need to fill a void. After realizing that American Masters had yet to do a documentary on Ailey and his impression on American dance culture, Wignot gathered those who intimately knew him, showed the depth of a legend’s own revelations, and centered Ailey as a testament to how incalculable his value was to Black Expression.

In a recent conversation via email with the acclaimed filmmaker, Wignot discussed exploring the full contours of Alvin Ailey’s life, how her own experiences interconnected with his, and how Black cinema collectives will help to expand Black Expression in the 21st century.

What parallels did you see between yourself and Alvin Ailey while doing research for this documentary?

JAMILA WIGNOT: Gosh, this is quite the question! I’m not sure I recognize it as parallels, but I felt extraordinary empathy for Mr. Ailey’s childhood years — the wonder, but also the melancholy that was there. Our lives were so different, but I understand what it feels like to be an outsider, to feel like there were few role models in my chosen field, and to grapple with the vulnerability that comes with artistic expression. Like Ailey, I’m also interested in creating experiential works that take audiences on a journey and that centers life outside the gaze of the supremacy of all forms. Black people, people of color, queer people, poor people—we are defined by so much more than the violence and brutality that shapes our lives and so for me, as I think for Mr. Ailey, it’s imperative that we place that right at the center of artistic expression.

Your work, much like Ailey’s, has been lauded and applauded by those in rarefied spaces. What does it mean to you, now that the project has been available to watch, to have Ailey out in the world?

JW: From the beginning, my team and I felt that Mr. Ailey’s larger-than-life story deserved a wide release. He was an artist who considered himself an anti-elitist and was determined that dance and all arts would be accessible to the broadest possible audience. This isn’t always achievable for documentary films and in this complicated moment where the challenges facing independent cinema have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, it feels like a miracle to have the distribution possibilities we have had. What’s been truly special is seeing the film with audiences again. To be able to gather with people and taken a film together has felt like a dream.

It is a beautiful time for creators of color to not only share the stories of our past that have been overlooked for so long but also to impact the industry in need of change today. In your opinion, how have you seen Ailey influence the dance industry? Also, what have been some memorable responses from the dance community that you appreciated?

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I think it’s too early in our film’s life to think it’s influenced the dance industry writ large, but I think it’s very much a part of the conversation that so many industries are having around access. In making a home for Black dancers and in creating a repertory company that staged modern dances pieces from the past as well as works for up-and-coming choreographers, Mr. Ailey was in the vanguard. In many ways, the dance industry is only just catching up to where he was in 1958 when he first founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

My most memorable moments have come from my encounters at screenings with individuals who worked with Mr. Ailey and who feel that the film has captured the essence of him as a man and a creative. The other highlight was meeting April Berry in person at a screening hosted by Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. She is the dancer featured in the archival footage we feature in Memoria, the dance Mr. Ailey made for his friend Joyce Trisler. She is a beautiful dancer and her performance at that moment is gripping in its beauty and heartache. Witnessing her emotional reaction to the film was deeply meaningful.

What lessons did you learn from Alvin Ailey about “becoming” that you’ve applied to your own work and career?

JW: I think there is no end to one’s artistic journey of becoming so I suspect I’ll be putting into practice lessons from this film for many years to come. I think the most challenging part of becoming is just being true to your own vision. Mr. Ailey’s ability to recognize the beauty and wealth and drama of the community he’d come from is a lesson I will continue to apply.

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What questions about Alvin Ailey did you have that were answered while on this creative journey?

JW: The whole of making this film was a process of unending discovering. I came to it with a love of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and with very little knowledge of Alvin Ailey the artist and man. The journey was to know him and each discovery was an aha: his early years in Texas and to discover how much they were shaped by the music and social dances that he was exposed to and the social dances, to hear him sing a spiritual, to hear him describe the wonder of his encounter with Katherine Dunham, all of that just felt amazing to hear about in real-time from him. I wasn’t aware of his personal struggles — his loneliness, mental health struggles, and his intense privacy. Those things inform, I believe, the depth of his choreography… its fullness. Making this film was a journey to replicate that feeling of discovery, to come to Mr. Ailey with a sense of his greatness, and to peel back the layers to reveal how that came to be.

Many reviews highlighted how well you captured the late choreographer’s “full legacy” as a Black, gay man and modern dance icon. First, how do you respond to those claims, and secondly, what do you see as a major touchstone that connects that to those dancers of color today?

JW: The goal for this film was to present and be transparent about all the elements of Mr. Ailey’s identity but to present them holistically. When we meet him in his early years we hear all that shaped his coming of age — race, poverty, sexuality, and bodies in motion. The hope was that audiences would understand that from that point forward they were seeing the world through the eyes of a queer, working poor, Black man compelled to dance.

The film also needed to make space for the beauty and joy and wonder in his life because that is how Mr. Ailey himself explained his experience. While Mr. Ailey did not live in a time that allowed him to publicly declare all of who he was, at the center of his life work seems to be the themes of self-acceptance and self-love, as Mary Barnett says in the film, “to stand in [his] own being and say, ‘I Am’.” I think that’s something that is a touchstone for all of us on the so-called margins.

In pouring over those audiotapes from Alvin as he was getting later on in his life, what were some key takeaways you learned that weren’t able to make it into the documentary?

JW: Gratefully, I think we were able to honor the key takeaways in Mr. Ailey’s audio recordings.

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You and Ailey subverted traditional means of putting this project together through crowdfunding and your own strong will and ingenuity, correct? How has it felt to not rely on gatekeepers to deliver this documentary to the people? Also, can you speak to the importance of having groups like Brown Girls Doc Mafia and The New Negress Film Society around to serve as a resource for other filmmakers?

JW: Brown Girls Doc Mafia and The New Negress Film Society are two wonderful collectives. BGDM has been such a resource for me in connecting with collaborators, but most importantly in just being a champion of me, my work, and my ambitions. It’s a place where I don’t have to pretend. Where I can let down my guard, be vulnerable about the challenges, and feel less alone in an industry that is still dominated by cis, straight, white men. The New Negress Film Society is really a source of inspiration. The filmmakers who make up the collective are doing such extraordinary, unique, experimental work. They are challenging traditional notions of how film can be made and exhibited. Their Black Women Film Conference is impeccably curated and a source of such discovery for me.

Similar to how Alvin Ailey was taking his life into account in those audio recordings, how would you put your own life and career into perspective? And what would be the one overarching takeaway that you apply to it as you continue to move forward in this business?

I didn’t know that filmmaking would be my life’s work. I think like dance for Mr. Ailey, it called to me and I have stuck with it all these years because of the satisfaction of the work, the process. It is collaborative, challenging, but filled with discovery. One of my favorite moments in the film is hearing Mr. Ailey talk about how much he loves the discipline that dance requires and his love of creating something where there was nothing before. I am happiest on the days when I let go of judgment, follow my intuition, embrace the uncertainty, and set to work.

Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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