By Gregg Goldstein
Jamila Wignot has won two Peabody awards and an Emmy for producing and directing documentaries. This week in Cannes’ digital market, Cinetic Media is screening 20 minutes of footage of her third feature-length directorial effort, “Ailey,” for individual buyers. The Insignia Films production examines the life of the pioneering choreographer Alvin Ailey, using his own words and interviews with luminaries such as Ailey’s muse and successor, Judith Jamison. (At press time, Cinetic is in negotiations with a distributor for U.S. broadcast rights, with international, streaming and theatrical rights still available.) Variety spoke with Wignot about the project, her experiences as a Black filmmaker and changes she hopes to see in the industry.
— Gregg Goldstein
How did you get involved with “Ailey?”
It came to me through Insignia. They saw that there hadn’t been a film on Ailey in quite some time. And it was like having the greatest gift placed into my lap, because his work is very meaningful to me. In college, the Black student group on campus offered free tickets [to see his dance company], and I was blown away by the beauty, energy and joy you experience in their performances. We started having conversations in mid-2017, so it has been a long-gestating hustle of raising money, pulling resources together. We opened our edit in March and are bringing the story together now.
Will it be on PBS, like several of your past projects?
We are open to all distribution at this point, but that’s an obvious [choice] for us.
Has all of the filming been done?
We did all of our interviews with Ailey’s most intimate collaborators in 2018. Then we have this enormous trove of every public interview he ever conducted, along with rare audio recordings of him describing his life. The focus is how he became the man he became and how he created the company, told through his own words. And part of the film looks at a new work that created by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as the company entered its 60th year. We did about 15 interviews, including one with Carmen de Lavallade, a famous dancer who happened to be his friend. It was seeing her dance in the high school cafeteria that got him thinking about dance.
Obviously, looking at a Black pioneer has taken on an added relevance after the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world. What in the film explores his experiences with racism?
We explore things like how [he and his dancers] were the first people to integrate a hotel in Atlanta. He would also send press and promotional materials to a hotel before booking the company. If they didn’t want to book them, he would try to find a different hotel. That was his effort to avoid the insult.
It has been reported that he hated being labeled as a Black choreographer. Is that something you explore?
I think when he says that, he’s saying, “I am a Black choreographer, but that doesn’t mean I can only do certain [things].” He did ballets with classical music and had a real breadth of work. He choreographed his first dance in 1958 and he died in 1989, and there is a frustration for him of, time and again, having people continue to want to put him in a box.
He had a fascinating but troubled life — he had a nervous breakdown in 1980, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had issues with drugs.
Yeah, he was managing his mental health with drug use at the time.
He died of AIDS-related causes. Will the film cover his life as a gay man?
We have him talking about it himself on audio cassettes. There’s a challenge here — we’re in no way avoiding it, but it’s not something that everybody [interviewed] digs in to. [Yet] what’s so interesting about the arts world at this time is that everybody knew.
I’m wondering what your experiences have been as a Black female filmmaker in the industry, and how things have changed, if at all, over the last decade.
That’s a complicated one. I came up through the PBS system, and I’m a beneficiary of an apprenticeship model that existed where you could work your way up. Like Ailey, [I share] that idea of not wanting to be pigeonholed. I’m totally fascinated by issues of race and Black culture. That’s just not the only work that I want to be doing.
The challenge for me is feeling, when I get a phone call, why am I getting the call? Are you calling because you think that I’m talented and capable? Or are you calling because you need a cover? Because on some of the Black projects that I’ve worked on, I’ve been one of the few Black people. That was not the case on [the 2013 Emmy and Peabody winner] “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” which had a wonderfully diverse crew.
That’s part of challenge of what we are going through right now. Everybody is racing for corrective [measures] in this moment. The goal can’t just be, “Now you come to us.” I think the point is to find ways that we can feel supported as artists in our own stories, to feel like the narratives that we find interesting matter.
I don’t know that much has changed in the past 10 years, but I am very encouraged by a lot of the young voices out there now, because they are fearless and unapologetic, and I think they aren’t going to accept some of the same constraints that people of my generation did. I don’t think they have a sense of feeling grateful. They know that they’re good. Come hell or high water, they will get supported in the way that they need to be.
What else do you think can be done to eliminate some of the built-in institutional prejudice that exists?
There has to be real commitment to inclusion across the board. If a project comes to you and there are zero people of color in it, that should worry you. [If there are] things that seem uninteresting to you, you’re forgetting that there are very diverse audiences out there who are really hungry for content. We’ve seen that in this “golden age of television,” and filmmaking hasn’t been nearly as responsive.
The doc side has a lot of challenges, because it is super-underfunded, and often the people who can afford to be in it are middle class or upper-middle class. The foundation side, where a lot of the grant money comes from, is very, very lacking in diverse faces. There are a lot of structural changes that need to be addressed. And I think it’s going to be very important for representations of Blackness that we see in the next couple years to not just be about a group of people who seem to be victimized all the time, because there’s so much more to Black life.