Black artists of the 20th century

Television: PBS documentary traces African-Americans' uphill struggle to show the world their humanity.

February 01, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Hearing the words of actor Ossie Davis alone would be enough to justify seeing "I'll Make Me a World: a Century of African-American Arts," starting tonight on PBS.

"Art was at one time the only voice we had to declare our humanity," says Davis, one of the first voices heard in this six-hour documentary series on the history of black artists in 20th century America.

"When we were described as barely above cattle, certainly not human, it was our art that we had to show the rest of the world that possibly we were humans. Art as a basic fundamental element of human expression is more important to us now than ever before. And I would like to see us take it a little more responsibly."

That last sentence about responsibility is a challenge. "I'll Make Me a World" -- the last production of Henry Hampton, the acclaimed creator of "Eyes on the Prize" who died in November -- bears the stamp of Hampton's keen sense of social conscience. It not only tells the stories of black painters, poets, sculp- tors, musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers and actors who have helped shape American culture, but challenges viewers to examine their own attitudes toward those artists and their works.

The method of this ambitious effort is biography. Rather than catalog black artists from 1900 to today, specific artists were chosen whose individual histories made for good storytelling and whose experiences, Hampton and co-executive producer Sam Pollard hoped, best embodied the larger themes of all black artists in this century.

There can be problems with this method because only the more dramatic narratives tend to be told. But a study based on compelling minibiographies can take history to a mass audience like almost no other form. Film historian Neal Gabler demonstrated this with his ethnic study, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood."

And, so, "I'll Make Me a World" starts tonight with Bert Williams, who along with George Walker, formed one of the most popular song-and-dance teams in the country at the turn of the century. In 1903, they opened in the first all-black show to play on Broadway, "In Dahoney," a musical about African-Americans going to Africa.

Williams gained his fame in blackface -- putting on black makeup over his own black skin in a weird and complicated imitation of the white minstrel performers who put on black face to mock African-Americans. The emotional and spiritual calculus that took place in the heart and mind of Williams and other black performers like him is suggested in a brilliant performance by Ben Vereen, in which he portrays Williams.

Part of the Vereen segment in tonight's "I'll Make Me a World" comes from videotape of his performance in 1981 at the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. The image of Vereen in blackface portraying Williams stops you dead as a viewer and rattles your soul with how complicated and political the issue of identity can be for a black artist in mainstream America.

The dominant theme of "I'll Make Me a World" is the tension between the black artist and white society. It offers what amounts to a 100-year debate among black artists as to their responsibilities to art and society.

"You're walking a tightrope because you understand the responsibility because of the legacy of how we've been portrayed. But, at the same time, you have to be truthful as an artist. So, it's a balancing act and it's hard to do," filmmaker Spike Lee says.

In addition to their accomplishments, "I'll Make Me a World" offers us the wisdom of those who have walked the tightrope: filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, playwrights Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, singer Bessie Smith, performer Paul Robeson, sculptor Augusta Savage, musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, writers James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, ballet dancers Raven Wilkenson and Delores Browne, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and dancer Bill T. Jones among others. The chorus of voices commenting on the choices made by black artists is equally impressive: filmmakers Julie Dash and Melvin Van Peebles, choreographer Alvin Ailey, poet Amiri Baraka, writer Alice Walker, visual artists Faith Ringgold, playwright August Wilson, novelist John Edgar Wideman, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, critic Cornel West, painter Jacob Lawrence, and on and on.

Many African-American viewers will know these players, and might, during the first few minutes tonight, think there's nothing new to learn. But stay with it. Hampton clearly made a choice to try to reach a large mainstream audience just as he did in "Eyes on the Prize." And, so, he starts out casting his net very wide through the use of shared and familiar words and images. But the focus gets deeper as the series progresses.

Should Hampton have gone for the crossover audience? And, if so, should he have done it the way he did, running of the risk of losing some African-American viewers? That's exactly the kind of debate Hampton would have wanted critics to have about "I'll Make Me a World," as it takes its own place among important documentaries in American life.

Documentary

What: "I'll Make Me a World; a Century of African-American Arts."

When: 9 to 11 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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