Review: ‘A Place of Our Own’

By turns celebratory and melancholy, Stanley Nelson's docu is a heartfelt and deeply personal account of summers spent in Oak Bluffs, a Martha's Vineyard resort community frequented by upper-middle-class African-American families. Set to air Feb. 17 on PBS, anecdotal pic merits additional exposure in fest and nontheatrical venues.

By turns celebratory and melancholy, Stanley Nelson’s “A Place of Our Own” is a heartfelt and deeply personal account of summers spent in Oak Bluffs, a Martha’s Vineyard resort community frequented by upper-middle-class African-American families. Set to air Feb. 17 on PBS, anecdotal pic merits additional exposure in fest and nontheatrical venues.

Justly acclaimed for his award-winning docus of major events in black history (“The Murder of Emmett Till,” “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords”), Nelson narrows his focus here to fashion a first-person account of halcyon days spent in an enclave where “at least for the summer,” he says, “the world did not look at us and define us solely by race.”

Using home movies, archival photographs and interviews, Nelson affectionately renders Oak Bluffs as a comfort zone throughout most of the last century for upscale blacks eager to spend time with likeminded and similarly successful peers. Pic places particular emphasis on the 1950s and ’60s, the period of Nelson’s own youth, and includes recollections by such notables as Lani Guinier and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The most entertaining commentary comes from Oak Bluffs resident Isabelle Powell, former wife of the late congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who remembers the frustratingly brief movie career of her beautiful sister, Fredi Washington (best known for playing the passing-for-white daughter in 1934’s “Imitation of Life”). Stories and film clips are sufficiently fascinating to indicate Washington should be the subject of a separate nonfiction feature.

As narrator and on-camera interviewer, Nelson recalls happy times with his mother and siblings in a cottage purchased by his father, a fiercely proud dentist who spent much of his life raging against racist slights, and who viewed his Oak Bluffs property as a symbol of defiant upward mobility: “The legend that I wanted to create,” he says, “was that I, a Negro, wanted to own waterfront property on Martha’s Vineyard, and let that stand alone for my determination.”

Not long after buying the house in 1968, however, Nelson Sr. left his family, and a significant portion of “Place of Our Own” covers Nelson Jr.’s efforts to understand his long-estranged father when the latter returns to Oak Bluffs for the first time in many years. Pic generates mild but palpable tension as father repeatedly refuses to talk on camera about his breakup with the filmmaker’s mother — who died at age 83 a few months before shooting started. Aud is left with impression that Nelson Sr. was inconsolably embittered by a lifetime of collisions with the color bar — “I was always going somewhere I wasn’t invited!” — and couldn’t find solace even among kindred spirits in Oak Bluffs.

“Place of Our Own” ends on bittersweet note, with Nelson unable to convince other siblings to visit Oak Bluffs for a full-scale family reunion and memorial service for their late mother. Pic also suggests that new-generation summertime visitors — college-age blacks who favor rap and beer blasts over jazz and cocktail parties — aren’t entirely welcome by tradition-bound Oak Bluffs residents. Overall, however, docu deftly balances wistful lament with warm-hearted nostalgia and clear-eyed gratitude. Tech values are adequate.

A Place of Our Own

Production

An Independent Television Service presentation. Produced, directed by Stanley Nelson. Written by Nelson, Marcia Smith.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Carol Bash, Nelson; editors, Sandra Christie, Helen Yum; music, Kathryn Bostic; associate producers, Bash, Yum. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, Jan. 10, 2004. (At Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 56 MIN.

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