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Chasing Ghosts, The Life and Art of Bill Traylor

An Interview with Sam Pollard and Jeffrey Wolf

Bill Traylor, photo by Nicholas Kemp (Kino Lorber Team)

America’s racial reckoning is not only taking place in the streets, but also on the screen. Movies such as Judas and the Black Messiah dramatize anti-racist activism, while on the cultural front, documentaries such as Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, directed by Jeffrey Wolf and executive produced by Sam Pollard, help to rescue lost legacies from historical obscurity. Born an enslaved person in the 1850s and buried in an unmarked grave, Traylor’s singular aesthetic vision is brought back to life in this 75-minute nonfiction film now being released by North American arthouse distributor Kino Lorber.

Pollard, who has collaborated with Spike Lee, is a brilliant, prolific producer and director of documentaries, including episodes of PBS’s 1990 landmark Civil Rights series Eyes on the Prize and its 2008 sequel; 2003’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin; 2017’s ACORN and the Firestorm plus Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which aired on PBS’ American Masters series; Discovery Channel’s 2019 Why We Hate series; et al. No stranger to the fine art realm, Pollard also helmed HBO’s 2021 Black Art: In the Absence of Light.

In his 2008 documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, Wolf documented another marginalized painter who’s outside of the rarefied art world’s mainstream because he’s deaf. In this candid interview conducted via conference call with the filmmakers speaking in New York, Pollard and Wolf discuss that Alabama original, Bill Traylor; whether white filmmakers should direct productions about Blacks; what the heck executive producers do, anyway; the cycle of features and documentaries about African American dissidents being surveilled by the government; the state of the documentary medium; upcoming projects; and more.

At the start of Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith calls Bill Traylor: “The greatest artist you’ve never heard of.” What makes Traylor so “great”?

JEFFREY WOLF: I thought you were going to say: “Why did we never hear of him?” [Laughter.]

Well, that’s the next part.

JW: That’s a tough question. There are so many things about Traylor that make him great. His whole basically pouring his almost 100 years of his life into a three-year period, where he takes his memories, history and ancestry and puts it all out on a piece of paper, maybe three drawings a day for a three-to-four-year period. And those drawings tend to resonate and tell stories about a past we don’t know very much about.

SAM POLLARD: I would say also that the thing that makes Bill Traylor so special is that he lived a long time. He covered so much of a part of American history that most of us don’t know about. Here is a man born during slavery, here is a man who lived in the post-Civil War period during Reconstruction, here is a man who was a part of America and the South when Jim Crow was cemented… Here is a man who is part of the experience of people – not him, but others – leaving the South as part of the Great Migration. Here is a man who lived on a farm near the growing city of Benton, Alabama, and throughout all of this history, he documented in just three years all this history. And that makes him uniquely special.

JW: Another thing: 1940 is a crucial time period in American history, between the two [world] wars. One way of thinking about Traylor is this crossover between the two worlds of rural and urban. Because of circumstances he gets forced into living an urban life [at Montgomery] after a long history, almost 70 years, of a rural life. So, he’s just chronicling those things for us, and for the Black experience.

How would you categorize and describe Traylor’s artistic style and form? Is it Folk, primitive, naïve, Fauvist or what?

JW: That’s a good question. He’s put into a lot of different categories. I think he’s unique in and of himself. Some people want to call him a “modernist,” and then breakdown the modernism, because he used all found materials, the way a lot of contemporary artists don’t want to be tied into art supplies from an art supply store. I would call him “a self-taught artist.” The word of the day is “outsider” – but that’s more of a brand than a description.

Jeffrey, based on photos I’ve seen, you appear to be Caucasian. How would you respond to an African American who contended that it was improper, perhaps even cultural misappropriation, for a white person to direct a biopic about a Black artist?

JW: Well yeah, there’s lots of discussion about who gets to tell the story, isn’t there? We’re telling a story – not the story. Our first word about it doesn’t have to be the last word. I’d say: “Bring it on.” Embrace what I’ve done and take a look at what your response is. Somebody like Kerry James Marshall in the prologue to the catalogue said that a Black person and a white person may look at this work completely differently. [Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is the official catalogue for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2018-2019 exhibition of Traylor’s oeuvre.] I completely agree.

SP: I would say this as an African-American filmmaker, the thing to remember about creating work: You’ve got to have a firm commitment and passion for the work, and belief in the work. You can’t take away from the fact that Jeff knows this world extremely well, he’s known this world way before he was introduced to Bill Traylor, being a real art connoisseur.

I agree with Jeff – everybody can have a point of view. And I think Jeff’s point of view especially – he understands this world, he understands Traylor. You can also say if a Black filmmaker is going to do a film about Traylor, or any artist, that doesn’t mean that’s going to be the one perspective from the Black point of view. Because Black people aren’t monolithic. So, if I was [directing] a film about Traylor, it wouldn’t be the same point of view. You know? If a filmmaker’s passionate and committed to a project, no matter what their color is, I always will support them. I had no reservations concerning Jeff and this film, because I knew his commitment and his passion for the subject.

JW: I did do a lot of listening, not a lot of talking, at the beginning of this process. And I also went through a lot of what academics might call “peer review.” I was constantly running things by people to see if I was overstepping or getting in my own way. I feel that what Sam just said is true, I’ve gotten an enormous amount of support from both the art community, the African American community and people in general. I love the work; I was committed the first day I saw it and I moved forward from there.

Leslie Umberger – curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum – says Traylor “is chasing ghosts.” What does that mean?

JW: I really believe this generation, of all of us artists, we’re looking back at our ancestry, our history and our memories, and we’re trying to find our place within all of it. It’s funny, the way I came up with the title was somebody said, “Why don’t you do a movie about a living artist? Why are you chasing ghosts?” And that really resonated for me, because I think that making his story would never be told if I wasn’t telling it. What Leslie is saying is she had a premonition in some way, that he wouldn’t be around to see it, he could kind of see what was coming. Later in life, you can see from Traylor’s drawings, he lived in a topsy-turvy state where he was getting lots of visions and ideas about things that come out in the drawings.

Sam, your credit on the film is as “executive producer.” For the layman this is often a nebulous term. What exactly did you do as executive producer vis-à-vis Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts?

SP: [Laughter.] You know, I’ve been executive producer on lots of documentaries. So, for me the role of the executive producer is not out raising money so much but to support the filmmaker’s artistic and creative vision. So, when Jeff approached me and showed me one of his early, unfinished rough cuts, I gave him my input, I gave him my advice, I gave him my long years of experience, to help get the story out there and to make the film. If there’s anything I can do to help that happen please feel free to ask me to have any role in the project.

For me, an executive producer is to really help to support the filmmaker to execute his or her vision in the best possible way. To give them the feel and the confidence that there’s someone out there who’s going to support what they’re trying to do, and not trying to stymie their work. And then, the next level for me, is to trumpet them to anybody I know who can help just get it out there, by word of mouth, get it into theaters in some form, to all the big press – to make it understood that he’s created a very special film about a very special man.

JW: If I can throw something in there – part of me as a filmmaker is to have trust in the people who I work with. It took 10 years to develop that trust in every category. And Sam, we’re both former editors, and we’ve known each other for a very long time. We’ve compared notes on lots of things over the years. When I asked him to be involved in this it was really about trusting that he would be an active participant when I needed him to be… Other than the person I wrote this film with [Fred Barron], Sam was probably my biggest ally…

At the end of Chasing Ghosts is footage of the Civil Rights movement, including of Rev. King. Sam, are these clips from Eyes on the Prize?

SP: …They’re not. Eyes on the Prize took them from other news sources. What happens is, because Eyes on the Prize is so iconic, people just assume it was from Eyes on the Prize, but that’s not the case.

Your documentary MLK/FBI seems to be part of a trend of several recently released films that deal with the theme of FBI and government surveillance of Black dissenters. They include: Judas and the Black Messiah; The United States vs. Billie Holiday; Bobby Seale in The Trial of the Chicago 7; and if I remember correctly, One Night in Miami. What do you make of the fact that these similarly themed films are emerging now?

SP: You know why? Because history, Ed. It’s almost 60 years. Things that far away, they resonate from a very historical perspective. The other reason it resonates so strongly now is because where America’s at in the last year and a half. Not to say that these films were made after what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – they were through all of the process. It seems to be a synthesis all of a sudden that what happened in the sixties is so long ago now, because it’s important history that people understand about America and the systemic racism that still exists.

How best to do that? Go back and look at things that happened back in the sixties and fifties. With Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”; with Dr. King and the FBI; with Fred Hampton; it’s just this opportunity out there. All this history is really just bubbling up to the surface…

Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog) from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum @1994 Bill Traylor Family Trust

Are we currently experiencing a Golden Age of Documentary?

SP: Uh… I’m really uneasy about using terms like “the Golden Age.” I would say what’s happening in America now is there are so many ways to make a documentary and they are basically grabbing the attentions of larger audiences more than ever before. You’ve got everybody from Stanley Nelson to Alex Gibney…

The documentary form has just expanded. The approach, the way to making a documentary has really morphed into something much more complicated, where you see animation is involved now, you see recreations, you see performance pieces like in [Chasing Ghosts]…

And the audience is just more engaged now… There’s a lot of work now. You have all these fantastic streaming services, from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon to Peacock, so that’s giving opportunities for documentaries to be shown and engaged.

JW: I’m hoping we’re in an age where we can start to tell stories that aren’t necessarily the most commercial, but they could be the most interesting. I’m somebody who comes out of narrative film, I’ve edited 30 scripted films. I see the world of documentary as a way of telling more stories I want to tell, instead of telling the same story over and over. I just see so much more freedom in the form. It may be “golden” in a sense that you can be more expressive. Features have become repetitious and big and with lots of special effects. Look at some of the small narrative films, like Nomadland, it’s like part documentary, part narrative. I see a future in that, I see these worlds coming together a lot more and personally, I find that entertaining and I’m excited about trying to bend the form.

Do you think that [then-] 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who shot the George Floyd footage seen around the world that had such a huge impact, should get a special Academy Award?

SP: [Laughter.] I’m going to pass on that one.

JW: Only when the Zapruder tape [of JFK’s assassination] gets an Oscar.

SP: If the Zapruder film got an Academy Award, then she should. Good point, Jeff.

JW: That’s a great question, because with iPhones and all those DIY possibilities out there, who knows what we’re going to see next?

Jeffrey, Chasing Ghosts is coming out now. What’s next for you?

JW: I have a few ideas. One is about the artist Romare Bearden…

Sam, tell us about your upcoming documentaries?

SP: Counting the Ballots is a film I’m co-directing with a young woman named Wendy Jackson. It’s about Stacey Abrams – who is probably going to be running for governor again. It’s looking at what she’s done in terms of voting in Georgia, how proactive she’s been.

Black Russians: The Red Experience is a film I’ve been involved with [as executive producer] for a couple of years. [Yelena Demikovsky] has been trying to do a [documentary] about African Americans who went to Russia in the late twenties and thirties, and stayed there and had families there. The film is about their offspring – some who have stayed in Russia and some who haven’t. That’s been long in the making.

But the film that’s really probably going to be released soon, as soon as I finish it up, is about Arthur Ashe. Another person from the sixties whose story really will resonate because of circumstances that had him so upset when he first came out on the tennis field, how he evolved and got in trouble with South Africa.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is currently available to watch in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee and in New York at Film Forum and LA at Laemmle NoHo.

Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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