SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE -- “Texas was a tough place to be,” Ailey says in one of the film’s many archival interviews. “If you were Black, you were nothing.” He picked cotton, and he danced at the local honky-tonk, “where we let it all hang out.” It was clear he wasn’t long for small-town Texas.
These early sequences set a pattern, as director Jamila Wignot and archival producer Rebecca Kent incorporate fleeting footage — cotton fields, juke joints — that match not just the time and place but also the mood of where Ailey found himself in those moments. This is also the case when Ailey arrives in Los Angeles, and then New York, and in the countries where the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured. (He also studied at San Francisco State University in 1951 and formed a nightclub act with Maya Angelou while living in the city.) The sense of place created in “Ailey” isn’t just vivid; it’s poetic, a fitting corollary to the film’s subject.