‘Ailey’ is a frustratingly subdued portrait of a revered artist

REVIEW: 'Ailey' attempts to demystify an admired yet enigmatic man, but only manages to provoke more unanswered questions

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It seems like fans have been waiting forever to see a comprehensive film on beloved choreographer Alvin Ailey, the man who revolutionized dance and opened a now iconic theater, where artists from all backgrounds have mastered their crafts.

While much has been written and said about the legacy of his work, there hasn’t been a significant movie or TV series that has delved into the man behind the name. And director Jamila Wignot’s documentary, Ailey, isn’t one either. 

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Screened at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s hard to tell what Ailey is trying to do. For starters, it’s described as a “portrait” of its namesake on IMDB, but it’s closer to a tribute to him instead. In fact, it even opens with a clip from Cicely Tyson’s speech honoring Ailey at the Kennedy Center in 1988, when he was awarded for his lifetime contribution to American culture. Perhaps unbeknownst to the audience at this point in the film, this moment sets the tone for what’s to come. 

While Wignot seems to obligatorily include audio interviews and other archival footage of Ailey taking us through his biographical journey, she offers little exposition of his words. For example, when he talks about being raised by a single mother in Texas in the 1930s, and plainly states that he had no relationship with his father, there is no one from his personal life—friends? Family members?—also featured in the film that could ground his statements. As a result, it feels immediately hollow. Who is this nebulous voice, more seen than heard, that bears the film’s name?

29th August 1968: American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey (right) performs on stage with his company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, at the Edinburgh Festival. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Ailey doesn’t seem to know. In fact, Wignot rushes forward in history to trace Ailey’s academic and professional paths as we listen to him marvel over revered contemporaries like Carmen de Lavallade and Don Martin, almost like a Wikipedia bullet point. Though we are treated to some of his proudest work, like “Revelations,” inconsequential information like how Ailey was inspired by various forms of dance and music, including Bach, seem included only to fill the film’s scant, 1 hour and 22-minute runtime. While it’s nice to know, it’s not balanced with anything particularly engrossing. 

That includes the bizarre decision to feature rehearsals and practices for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s upcoming number, featuring all new choreography that was inspired by today’s Black Lives Matter era. As fun as it is to see how Ailey continues to inspire a new generation, these scenes are so choppily interspersed throughout the film that it’s hard to care. And besides, it is the choreographers who do the talking here, in between directing the artists, but offering very little outside of referring to the dancers as “physical historians.”

It would have been far more impactful if, instead, the young people guided this portion of the narrative. Why did they choose this theater? What does Ailey’s journey mean to them? What is it about Ailey’s journey that still resonates today? 

The director seems to leave those questions to be tackled by Ailey’s own students and protégés—people like dancers-turned-choreographers Judith Jamison, Masazumi Chaya and Bill T. Jones—who all have very interesting things to say about what Ailey meant to them and their relationship, but little else. We often see each of Wignot’s subjects stumbling over who they think Ailey was, including his sexuality. 

In a rare intimate anecdote in Ailey, as black-and-white photos of him in athletic sports flash upon the screen, we hear the master reflect on how he was intimidated by a sports coach in school, who scolded his technique and asked, “What are you, a sissy?” Ailey recalls thinking, “Yeah, I am.” Though a brief reflection, it’s the first admission of his own sexuality in the film, and it actually gives a sense of his humanity and identity at a time when he was coming into his own. 

circa 1965: US dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

That’s later followed in the film by a rather dangling story of Ailey finding, then losing, a romantic partner named Abdullah that he loved. We hear the pain in his voice as he recounts this, and when his friend, Joyce, passed away suddenly. It is clear that Ailey did not speak much about his life to those who were around him each day, as multiple interviewees in the film attest, so these tiny moments of introspection are extremely welcome.  

Ailey leaves it to people like Chaya and Jones to wrestle with what they think Ailey might have been going through in the film’s concluding moments, ultimately coming to terms with the fact that they didn’t really know him at all. Even how Ailey considered his own celebrity, adored by people of color and honored by white folks, was pure conjecture.

“Did they love him or what he represented?” one asks as they ponder just how much Ailey edited of himself to feel accepted by those around him. Was his work really only about “protest” or the agony suppressed—or was he just capturing the beauty of dance through the politicized bodies of the less powerful?

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Jones even goes as far to suggest that Ailey did not have much of a gay community to engage with or look up to. Close to his mother through his dying days, even as he was committed to a mental institution after seen acting unusually at his theater, those who looked up to him are compelled to wonder what it must have been like to be him, while the Ailey audience presumably scratches their heads in confusion. 

Ailey attempts to demystify an admired yet enigmatic man, but only manages to provoke more unanswered questions—even for those in the film. 

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