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Tue Feb 19 11:34:46 MST 2002
NY Times, February 19, 2002
TV REVIEW | 'RALPH ELLISON'
A Novel's Invisible Ending
By JULIE SALAMON
Two incidents reverberate with special force in Avon Kirkland's richly
layered portrait of Ralph Ellison, showing tonight on PBS's "American
Masters." In one, a young Bryant Gumbel, interviewing Ellison on "Today" in
1982, asks him why he has failed to produce a novel in the 30 years
following the astonishing success of "Invisible Man."
Ellison, slender and elegant, assures Mr. Gumbel that writer's block isn't
an issue. He's had a major setback in 1967 a fire destroyed more than 350
pages of work but the new novel is progressing.
He wasn't lying, at least not about the writer's block. When he died in
1994, Ellison left behind files and files of episodes, notes and drafts
totaling more than 2,000 pages. But the novel would never be finished. He
wasn't blocked so much as stymied by the magnitude of his ambition, which
was to write an epic vision of American identity, seen through the lens of
race. This would be an enormous undertaking by anyone, but carrying
particular weight for Ellison, whose literary stature had been called into
question by radical African-American writers in the 1960's.
"The most dangerous thing in the world is a skilled artist with backward
ideas," says Amiri Baraka, the poet, appearing in tonight's documentary as
he is now, gray-haired and reflective, and as he was when he was young and
A second incident, vividly recollected on the program by Judge Henry T.
Wingate, took place at Grinnell College a month before the devastating fire
that obliterated so much of Ellison's work. As Judge Wingate relates the
story, Ellison had been invited to Grinnell to be honored along with the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writer Willie Morris. Judge
Wingate, then a student at the college, attended a party for those being
A young man accosted Ellison and lambasted him for the apolitical, humanist
ending of "Invisible Man." "You are nothing but an Uncle Tom," he shouted.
Judge Wingate, looking shaken at the memory, describes how Ellison, always
so careful about appearances, came unglued. He put his head on Mr.
Wingate's shoulder and cried, repeating, "I'm not an Uncle Tom."
It's a moment of great poignancy, one of many such moments in Mr.
Kirkland's sensitive examination of the relationship between race and
Ellison's artistic aesthetic. Mr. Kirkland also brings intellectual
muscularity to the inquiry, through insightful interviews with academics,
writers, critics and Ellison's friends. They give context to the
dichotomies in his life. He was criticized at various times by blacks (and
white critics like Irving Howe) for failing to produce protest literature,
yet he wrote most powerfully about a black man's experience. He won a place
in the literary pantheon with "Invisible Man," yet died having spent more
than half his life not finishing his second novel.
Ellison may not have been destined for greatness, but his parents thought
he could be. They moved from the South to Oklahoma City, where Ellison was
born in 1914. His father owned a coal and ice business and named his son
after Emerson, hoping that his Ralph Waldo would become a famous poet, too.
The father died in a freak accident when Ralph was 3, and the family became
impoverished, but no less ambitious. His mother brought home records and
Vanity Fair magazines for her sons to read. Ellison's poses in early photos
suggest he'd studied those Vanity Fair portraits well.
Oklahoma, which the Ellisons had seen as a land of opportunity, became as
segregated as the South. Ellison left the state for college. He had to hop
a freight train to get to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama because he had
no cash, but he left college for New York after his junior year. There he
got caught up in the intense, vibrant black intellectual life of the era,
becoming a protégé of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, but modeling his
prose on Hemingway.
The documentary handles this biographical material well, but it also takes
the risky step of dramatizing scenes from "Invisible Man." These could have
been awkward interludes but instead become strong visual reminders of the
book's ferocity and beauty. (Mr. Kirkland wrote the adaptations; Elise
Robertson directed. Performers include John Amos, with Jacques C. Smith as
the invisible man.)
Ellison was a cornet player who once thought jazz would be his career, and
he was explicit about how music influenced him as a writer. In a 1966
filmed interview, Ellison compares the experience of reading T. S. Eliot's
"Waste Land," to listening to a jazz riff. In "Shadow and Act," a book of
essays, he returns to the jazz metaphor in a discussion of African-
American identity within a heterogeneous society. The documentary itself
makes deft use of music, using enough jazz to relay Ellison's passion
without succumbing to the temptation of overscoring.
Ultimately this is the story of a man's search for his voice and his place
in the world. "Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out
of being invisible," Ellison writes in "Invisible Man." "I think it must be
because he's aware that he is invisible."
In a lovely bit of homage to Ellison's admiration for the musician, Mr.
Kirkland puts Armstrong on the soundtrack, singing these lyrics: "What did
I do to be so black and blue?" It's the right note.
Ralph Ellison: An American Journey
On most PBS stations tonight
(Check local listings)
Directed, written and produced by Avon Kirkland. A production of New Images
Productions Inc., in association with WNET, New York; presented by the
National Black Programming Consortium and ITVS. Series creator and
executive producer for American Masters, Susan Lacy.
WITH: John Amos (College Professor), Jacques C. Smith (Invisible Man).
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