Review: ‘Ailey,’ starring Alvin Ailey

July 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Ailey”

Directed by Jamila Wignot

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the biographical documentary “Ailey” features a group of white and African American people (and one Asian person) discussing the life and career of pioneering dance troupe founder/choreographer Alvin Ailey, who became one of the first African Americans to launch a world-renowned dance troupe and dance school.

Culture Clash: Ailey, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58, struggled with the idea of going public about his HIV diagnosis, and he experienced problems throughout his life, due to racism, homophobia and his issues with mental illness.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Alvin Ailey fans, “Ailey” will appeal primarily to people who interested in the art of fusion dance and stories about entrepreneurial artists who succeeded despite obstacles being put in their way.

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo by Jack Mitchell)

The documentary “Ailey” is a very traditionally made biography of a very non-traditional artist. Although the movie can be at times be slow-paced and dry, it’s greatly boosted by having modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey as a very fascinating subject. Ardent fans of Ailey will get further insight into his inner thoughts, thanks to the documentary’s previously unreleased audio recordings that he made as a personal journal. The movie also does a very good job at putting into context how Ailey’s influence can be seen in many of today’s dancers and choreographers.

Directed by Jamila Wignot, “Ailey” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. New York City was Ailey’s last hometown, where he found fame as one of the first prominent dancers/choreographers to blend jazz, ballet, theater and Afro-centric culture. His work broke racial barriers in an industry where U.S.-based touring dance troupes were almost exclusively owned and staffed by white people.

Born in the rural town of Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey says in audio recordings that his earliest memories were “being glued to my mother’s hips … while she worked in the fields.” Ailey’s father abandoned the family when Ailey was a baby, so Ailey was raised by his single mother Lula, who was a domestic worker. She supported him in his dream to become a professional dancer.

Ailey’s childhood experiences were shaped by growing up poor in the racially segregated South. In the documentary, he mentions through audio recordings that some of his fondest childhood memories were being at house parties with dancing people and going to the Dew Drop Inn, a famous hotel chain that welcomed people who weren’t allowed in “whites only” hotels and other racially segregated places. Another formative experience in his childhood was being saved from drowning by his good friend Chauncey Green.

By 1942, Ailey and his mother were living in Los Angeles, where she hoped to find better job opportunities in a less racially segregated state. It was in Los Angeles that Ailey first discovered his love of dance and theater, when he became involved in school productions. A life-changing moment happened for him happened at age 15, in 1946, when he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. It sparked a passion to make dance his career. And that passion never went away, despite all the ups and downs that he encountered.

In the documentary, Ailey has this to say about watching the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for the first time: “I was taken into another realm … And the male dancers were just superb. The jumps, the agility, the sensuality of what they did blew me away … Dance had started to pull at me.”

But his interest in becoming a dancer was considered somewhat dangerous at the time, because ballet dancing was something that boys could be and still are viciously bullied over as something that’s considered “too effeminate.” Carmen de Lavallade, a longtime friend of Ailey’s, comments in the documentary on what she remembers of a young Ailey before he found fame: “He was beautiful! He didn’t dare let anyone know he wanted to be a dancer, because he would be teased or humiliated.”

But at this pivotal moment in Ailey’s life, it just so happened that Lester Horton opened the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles in 1946. Don Martin, a longtime dancer and Ailey friend, says in the documentary that their mutual love of dance prompted Ailey to join Horton’s dance school, where Ailey thrived. Horton became an early mentor to Ailey.

The documentary doesn’t go into great detail over Ailey’s experiences as a student at the University of California at Los Angeles or when he briefly lived in San Francisco, where he worked with then-unknown poet Maya Angelou in a nightclub act called Al and Rita. Instead, the “Ailey” documentary skips right to the 1954, when Ailey moved to New York City to pursue being a professional dancer. In 1958, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which also has an affiliated school.

George Faison, an AAADT dancer/choreographer from 1966 to 1970, comments: “Alvin entertained thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance” in a prominent dance troupe. Ailey shares his thoughts in his personal audio recordings: “It was a universe I could escape into, so that it would allow me to do anything I wanted to do.”

Ailey’s breakthrough work was 1960’s “Revelations,” which was a then-unprecedented modern ballet about uniquely African American experiences steeped in church traditions. The piece was revolutionary not just because it had a majority-black group of dancers and touched on sensitive racial issues but also because it used blues, jazz and gospel instead of traditional classical music. “Revelations” remains Ailey’s most famous performance work.

Mary Barnett, an AAADT rehearsal director from 1975 to 1979, remembers the impact that “Revelations” had on her: “I was moved to tears seeing ‘Revelations’ … I was studying ballet, I was studying dance. This was more of a re-enactment of life.”

Judith Jamsion—an AAADT dancer from 1964 to 1988 and AAADT artistic director from 1989 to 2011—has this to say about what “Revelations” means to her: “What took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence in the dance.” Jamison is often credited with being the person who was perhaps the most instrumental in keeping AAADT alive after Ailey’s death.

A turning point for “Revelations” was when the production went on a U.S.-government sponsored tour of Southeast Asia. It’s one thing to be a privately funded dance troupe. But getting the U.S. government’s seal of approval, especially for a tour that could be viewed as a cultural ambassador for American dance, gave AAADT an extra layer of prestige.

However, “Ailey” does not gloss over the some of the racism that Ailey encountered, including tokenism and cultural appropriation. Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, has this to say about what it’s like to be an African American in an industry that is dominated by white people: “Oftentimes, black creators are used. Everybody used him [Ailey] as, ‘See, this is the progress we’re making. And see, we’re not racist, we have Alvin Ailey.'”

AAADT movement choreographer Rennie Harris (who created 2019’s “Lazarus” for AAADT) comments on Ailey’s mindset in wanting an African American social consciousness to be intrinsic to his work: “You came here to be entertained, but I have to tell my truth.” Harris adds that this way of thinkng influences his own work: “I’m still feeling the same way, as anyone would feel if you’re feeling unwanted by the [dominant] culture.”

Throughout the documentary, Harris and AAADT artistic director Robert Battle can be seen in rehearsals with AAADT dancers to show how Ailey’s legacy currently lives on with other generations of dancers. This back and forth between telling Ailey’s life story and showing present-day AAADT dancers could have been distracting, but it works well for the most part because of the seamless film editing by Annukka Lilja and Cory Jordan Wayne. The documentary has expected archival footage of Ailey interviews and past AAADT performances of Ailey’s work, such as 1969’s “Maskela Language,” 1970’s “The River”; 1971’s “Cry” and “Mary Lou’s Mass”; 1972’s “Love Songs” and 1975’s “Night Creature.”

The “Ailey” documentary includes analysis of some of Ailey’s biggest influences. It’s mentioned that “Cry” was a tribute to hard-working and supportive black women, such as his mother Lula. “Maskela Language” was inspired by the death of Ailey’s early mentor Hampton. Santa Allen, who was an AAADT dancer from 1973 to 1983, comments: “Choreography really was his catharsis.” As for his genre-defying work, Ailey says in archival footage, “I don’t like pinning myself down.”

The documentary has some commentary, but not a lot, on Ailey’s love life. He was openly gay to his close friends, family members and many of colleagues, but he avoided talking about his love life to the media. Ailey was apparently so secretive about his love life that the only serious boyfriend who’s mentioned in the documentary is a man named Abdullah (no last name mentioned), whom Ailey met in Paris and brought to New York City to live with him.

According to what’s said in the documentary, Abdullah left Ailey by climbing out of the apartment’s fire escape. The movie doesn’t mention why they broke up, but Ailey seems to have channeled his heartbreak into his work. Another aspect of Ailey’s personal life that he didn’t easily share with others was his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Only people in his inner circle knew about these struggles, according to what some people in the documentary say.

AAADT stage manager Bill Hammond says that by the 1970s, Ailey was a full-blown workaholic. “I think he took on too much,” Hammond comments. Other people interviewed in the “Ailey” documentary include “Lazarus” composer Darrin Ross; Linda Kent, an AAADT dancer from 1968 to 1974; Hope Clark, an AAADT dancer from 1965 to 1966; and Masazumi Chaya, an AAADT dancer from 1972 to 1966 and AAADT associate director from 1991 to 2019.

Ailey’s determination to keep his personal life as private as possible also extended to when he found out that he was HIV-positive. Several people in “Ailey” claimed that even when it was obvious that he was looking very unhealthy, he denied having AIDS to many of his closest friends, out of fear of being shunned. It was not uncommon for many people with AIDS to try to hide that they had the disease, especially back in the 1980s, when it was mistakenly labeled as a “gay disease,” and the U.S. government was slow to respond to this public health crisis.

Because dance requires a certain athleticism, having a physically degenerative disease such as AIDS was not something that Ailey wanted to be part of his legacy. According to Jones, many gay men at the time wanted to edit themselves out of the AIDS narrative. “He was part of the editing,” Jones says of Ailey.

And that shame caused Ailey to isolate himself from many of his loved ones. “He was alone,” adds Jones of Ailey not sharing much of his suffering with several people he knew. (On a side note, Jones is the subject of his own documentary: “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” which was released in the U.S. a week before the “Ailey” documentary.)

But toward the end of Ailey’s life, it was impossible for him to continue to hide the truth, even though he refused to go public with having AIDS. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is when Jamison describes being with Ailey on his death bed at the moment that he died: “He breathed in, and he never breathed out. We [the people he left behind] are his breath out.”

“Ailey” is an example of documentary that’s a touching reminder that how someone lives is more important than how someone dies. The storytelling style of this documentary doesn’t really break any new ground. However, people who have an appreciation for highly creative artists will find “Ailey” a worthy portrait of someone whose life might have been cut short, but he has an influential legacy that will continue for generations.

Neon released “Ailey” in New York City on July 23, 2021, and in Los Angeles on July 30, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘Mr. Soul!,’ starring Harold C. Haizlip, Alvin Poussaint, Harry Belafonte, Loretta Long, Nikki Giovanni, Christopher Lukas and Gayle Wald

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ellis Haizlip (center) with members of the J.C. White Choir in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Alex Harsley/Shoes in the Bed Productions)

“Mr. Soul! ”

Directed by Melissa Haizlip

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Mr. Soul!” examines the history of Ellis Haizlip, the co-creator/host of the National Education Television (NET)/PBS variety series “Soul!” (which was on the air from 1968 to 1973), and interviews a group of African Americans and white people who are entertainers, current and former TV producers, artists, educators, authors and civil rights activists.

Culture Clash: “Soul!” was the first nationally televised U.S. variety series that gave a spotlight to African American culture, and a lot of the show’s content was considered edgy and controversial.

Culture Audience: “Mr. Soul!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African American culture or TV shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Ellis Haizlip and Amiri Baraka in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Chester Higgins/Shoes in the Bed Productions)

Before there was BET, before there was “Soul Train,” a publicly funded variety series called “Soul!” paved the way for nationally televised U.S. programming devoted to showcasing African American culture. “Soul!” was on the air from 1968 to 1973, but the excellent documentary “Mr. Soul!” tells the inside story of how “Soul!” co-creator/host Ellis Haizlip (who died in 1991, at the age of 61) had the vision to mastermind this type of programming, which was revolutionary at the time and continues to influence African American entertainment variety shows today.

Ellis Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip skillfully directed this documentary, which has a treasure trove of archival footage and insightful commentary from a diverse array of people who were connected to the show in some way. Some of the documentary includes Ellis’ own correspondence, which is narrated in voiceover by actor Blair Underwood.

In watching the documentary, it’s clear that “Soul!” was definitely a product of its time. The show was conceived and born during the turbulent civil rights era of the late 1960s, when the U.S. was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, after John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were also murdered earlier in the decade. The Black Power movement was a force to be reckoned with , and so it was only a matter of time before TV executives decided there was a need to give the movement a showcase on television.

As the documentary points out, although Ellis Haizlip was one of the co-creators of “Soul!,” he didn’t initially plan to be the on-camera star of the show, since he preferred to work behind the scenes. According to “Soul!” co-creator/producer Christopher Lukas, he and Ellis decided to start the show after Lukas kept hearing Ellis talk about “how lively the renaissance of the arts of black communities around the country” was and there should be a TV show it.

Dr. Harold C. Haizlip, a cousin of Ellis and a short-lived host of “Soul!,” confirms that Ellis’ vision was to “legitimate all of the variety of expressions of the arts,” particularly in the African American community. Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte (who is interviewed in “Mr. Soul!”) had their own variety/talk shows, but those programs were aimed mainly at white audiences. Lukas says that Ellis didn’t want “Soul!” to be an African American version of “The Tonight Show,” but wanted “Soul!” to be “deeper, jazzier and more controversial” than the typical variety show on national television.

Of course, a TV show with this type of content can’t be at the mercy of advertisers, so public television was the best fit for “Soul!,” at a time when cable TV and the Internet didn’t exist. According to Lukas, the Ford Foundation quickly stepped up to fund “Soul!” as a New York City-based TV series on the nonprofit NET network, which was part of PBS. Lukas remembers that the title of “Soul!” was admittedly generic, but it was the only title that the producers could agree upon that best encompassed the spirit of the show.

Although there were other African American shows on U.S. public television that came before “Soul!” (such as “Black Journal,” “Like It Is,” and “Say Brother,” now titled “Basic Black”) these were primarily news and public-affairs programs. “Soul!” aimed to have to have more of a focus on arts and entertainment, while also including commentary about news, politics and other social issues, as they pertained to African Americans.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a world-renowned Harvard University professor and psychiatrist whose specialty is African American studies, was chosen as the first host of “Soul!” But his prestigious academic background didn’t translate well to him being a great TV personality, according to Poussaint and other people in the documentary. And so, Poussaint was asked to leave the show after only four episodes, according to Lukas.

The next host of “Soul!” was Harold Haizlip, who admits he wasn’t well-suited to be the show’s host either. At the time, he had a day job as headmaster for New Lincoln School, a New York City private school for kids in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Harold says that hosting “Soul!” was considered “radical” at the time, so he was slightly afraid that people from his highbrow academic world would find out and ostracize him. Harold didn’t have to worry about that for long, since he also parted ways with the show.

Lukas remembers that Ellis was initially reluctant to host “Soul!” because Ellis didn’t have a lot of on-camera experience. However, Ellis was eventually convinced to host “Soul!” when he figured out that, as the “face” of “Soul!,” it would give him more power to fulfill his vision for the show. Ellis started out as a very awkward host, but he eventually got the hang of it. And because Ellis did not have a highly academic persona, like the predecessor hosts, he probably came across as more “relatable” to the audience.

Several people, including Harold Haizlip and Lukas, mention that because Ellis was an openly gay man who knew what it was like to experience bigotry, that probably affected his willingness to be more open-minded to have guests on the show who were rejected by other TV shows. It’s noted many times in the documentary that if Ellis really liked a new artist, it didn’t matter if the artist had a hit or not, he wanted to champion the artist on the show. Several people mention that, unlike other TV programs that had lip syncing from music performers, “Soul!” always required that people perform live, giving the show a level of authenticity that other variety shows did not have.

Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Al Green, Toni Morrison, Arsenio Hall Roberta Flack, Novella Nelson and Earth Wind & Fire were among the artists who got their first major TV breaks by appearing on “Soul!” In the documentary, Valerie Simpson says, “There would not be an Ashford & Simpson without ‘Soul!'” Simpson’s husband/musical partner Nicholas “Nick” Ashford says that Ellis believed in them before they believed in themselves. (Ashford was interviewed for the movie four months before he died in August 2011, according the documentary’s production notes.)

Ellis also didn’t limit his choices to artists who did “safe” material, since many of the guests were controversial. Lukas says that Ellis wanted to embrace the radicals and the religious conservatives in the African American community. Louis Farrakhan, who would become the leader of the Nation of Islam in 1977, was a guest on “Soul!” in 1971. Farrakhan, who is considered the leader of Black Muslims in America, has frequently come under fire for comments that are anti-Semitic, racist against white people and homophobic. It’s noted in the documentary that Ellis’ “Soul!” interview with Farrakhan was the first time that Farrakhan admitted on TV that he would try to be more open-minded when it came to accepting people who aren’t heterosexual.

The Last Poets, an all-African American male poetry group, was on “Soul!” multiple times. The group was controversial for frequently using the “n” word in its poetry lines and titles. When the Last Poets would perform on “Soul!,” it was completely uncensored, as it is in this documentary. Last Poets members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan are among the documentary’s interviewees. Oyewole comments on the group’s frequent use of the “n” word in its art: “You’ve got to show how black you are by your actions.”

“Soul!” was not only very Afro-centric on camera, but the show was also very Afro-centric behind the scenes, since the majority of the show’s producers were African American women, according to the documentary. Former “Soul!” associate producers Anna Maria Horsford and Alice LaBrie are among those interviewed in the documentary. “Soul!” gave a great deal of airtime to black women co-hosting the show and doing on-camera interviews, when nationally televised U.S. primetime variety series, then and now, usually hire white men for these jobs.

In one episode, “Soul!” devoted the entire episode to African American female poets. “Soul!” also gave a big platform to activist/poet Nikki Giovanni, who appeared on the show numerous times and is interviewed in the documentary. Her 1971 exclusive interview with writer James Baldwin is considered one of the highlights of “Soul!’s” history. (Ellis and Baldwin initially didn’t along with each other, but the two men would eventually work together on “The Amen Corner” tour of the stage play.)

Loretta Long, who was an original “Soul!” co-host, remembers that the show gave her an opportunity to be on television at a time when television was limiting casting of African American women to mostly subservient or demeaning roles. Long says in the documentary about her on-camera opportunities at the time: “Television wasn’t an option for me, because I didn’t want to be Beulah. I didn’t want to be the maid.” She says of her first time on “Soul!”: “That first show, the atmosphere was electric!” Long would later go on to become one of the original stars of “Sesame Street.”

And long before Horsford found fame as an actress on sitcoms such as “Amen” and “The Wayans Bros.,” this former “Soul!” associate producer made several on-camera appearances on “Soul!” as an activist/poet. On a side note, the documentary includes late 1960s footage of actress Roxie Roker (Lenny Kravitz’s mother, who was most famous for co-starring on “The Jeffersons”) hosting the public-affairs/news program “Inside Bed-Stuy” It’s an example of the on-camera opportunities that public TV programs gave to African American women who were often shut out of other TV programs at the time.

Several people comment in the documentary that when African American guests came on “Soul!” (whose studio audience was also mostly African American), they showed a certain level of comfort that they didn’t have on other shows. When Grammy-winning legend Steve Wonder appeared on “Soul!” in 1972 to introduce his band Wonderlove, he didn’t seem to want to leave the stage. What was supposed to be a guest segment turned into an entire episode of Wonder performing.

Avant-garde jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was nowhere near as famous as Wonder, but he’s named in the documentary as an example of the type of “underground” African American artist who would never be able to get booked on any nationally televised primetime variety series at the time. The documentary includes footage of Kirk’s notorious 1972 appearance when he played three instruments at one time and ended the performance by ripping up a bridge chair on stage.

“Soul!” would later eventually expand its programming to include Latino issues and culture. Former “Soul!” host Felipe Luciano gets tearful in the documentary when he remembers how Ellis gave him his first opportunity to be a producer on the show. Luciano says that because of Ellis’ openness to include Latino culture in “Soul!,” Luciano was able to book and introducer Tito Puente on the show.

Some other notable appearances on “Soul!” included Sidney Poitier and Belafonte doing an interview together; Muhammad Ali discussing his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War; husband-and-wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in one of their first TV appearances together; and interviews with activists Betty Shabazz, Stokely Carmichael and Kathleen Cleaver, who is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary includes some family background information about Ellis (who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area), including mentioning that from an early age, he liked to direct performances and come up with creative ideas for shows. Ellis was the second child of four kids. He had an older sister named Doris, a younger sister named Marie and a younger brother named Lionel. Ellis was closest to Marie.

The family experienced a tragedy when Ellis’ beloved mother Sarah died when he was 17. His aunt Nellie than became like a surrogate mother to the kids. But Ellis’ father (Ellis Sr.), who’s described as very strict and religious, had a hard time accepting that Ellis was gay. Ellis’ cousin Harold gets emotional when he comments in the documentary about Ellis Sr.’s homophobia toward Ellis Jr.: “Even then, I knew Ellis was a very special person, and he needed a nourishing environment, rather than a critical one.”

Fortunately, Ellis found acceptance with his TV family at “Soul!” Before landing at “Soul!,” Ellis (a Howard University graduate) worked in theater while he was in college and eventually started working in television. “Soul!” came to an end when funding was cut off due to much of the controversial content.

As Harold comments about the show’s cancellation: “‘Soul!” was undiluted and absolutely in your face—and that was its value and also its undoing.” Former “Soul!” producer Luciano remembers being upset that Ellis was so calm and accepting about the cancellation, because he thought that Ellis would be more inclined to fight to keep the show on the air. A few days before the last episode of “Soul!” was filmed, another tragedy struck the Haizlip family. That tragedy won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that it had a profound effect on Ellis, who continued to work for PBS for most of his career.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Beth Ausbrooks and Mary Wilburn, two of Ellis’ childhood friends; actors Obba Babatunde and the late Novella Nelson; filmmakers Thomas Allen Harris, Louis Massiah and David Peck; writers Khephra Burns and Greg Tate; former “Soul!” production secretary Leslie Demus; former “Soul!” staff photographer Chester Higgins; dancers Carmen de Lavallade, , Sylvia Waters and Judith Jamison; choreographer George Faison; musicians Billy Taylor and Questlove; and activists Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.

Also contributing their commentary are producer/director Stan Lathan; former National Black Theatre director Sade Lythcott; entertainer Melba Moore; former WNET executive/former National Urban League president Hugh Price, Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a niece of Ellis Haizlip; Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson; Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis; George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of “It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV”; and “James Baldwin: A Biography” author David Leeming.

A lot of people who watch “Mr. Soul!” will find out many things about African American television that they didn’t know about before seeing this documentary. It’s why “Soul!” remains underrated and often overlooked when people talk about groundbreaking American television. But “Mr. Soul!” is a fitting and well-deserved tribute to “Soul!” and the visionary Ellis Haizlip, who took bold risks in bringing the show to life.

Shoes in the Bed Productions released “Mr. Soul!” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020.