In a profile last year for NPR’s Morning Edition, Kerry James Marshall said this about his paintings: “The hope was always to make sure these works found their way into museums so they could exist alongside everything else that people go into museums to look at.” And they have, finally. Along with Marshall’s paintings, with their signature jet-black figures, those of other contemporary African-American artists like Whitfield Lovell, Ellen Gallagher, and presidential portraitists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley can now rightfully be found in major galleries, museums, and other art institutions. This wasn’t always the case, of course, as African-American artists have often existed parallel to the established art world over the last two centuries, as recent exhibitions have sought to highlight. Tracing these artists in an alternative history that not only influences but also undergirds the works of Marshall, Lovell, Gallagher, and others is the subject of Jacques Goldstein’s 50-minute documentary Black Is the Color (2017).
Progressing chronologically, and after a short introduction establishing the current critical and mainstream recognition of black artists, the documentary touches upon key artists and art throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and highlights their importance using talking heads and voiceover. Black Is the Color starts in 1867. Two years after slavery was officially abolished, Edmonia Lewis sculpted “Forever Free,” which depicts two slaves breaking their chains in white marble. According to Gallagher, who interprets the piece as one of the interviewees commenting on the sculpture, by representing the figures in such a classical way, Lewis regards the slaves as equal to Greek gods. From Lewis, the documentary moves to 1890, to segregation after the period of Reconstruction and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson” (1893). And on Black Is the Color progresses, from Horace Pippin’s “The End of the War: Starting Home” (1930) to Malvin Gray Johnson’s “Self-Portrait” (1934), from Romare Bearden’s “The Block” (1978) to Jean-Michel Basquiat generally, and on to Gallagher’s collages and works on paper, Marshall’s large-scale paintings, and Lovell’s charcoal-on-wood-panel portraits.
However, for a film displaying such radical, political, and invigorating art, Black Is the Color is a conventional, one could even say stodgy documentary. It is like a visual art history textbook. It is saddled with an affectless voiceover and a generic, drum-based score that turns the documentary homogenous. As the talking heads commentate, one artwork and then the next and then the next come into focus. The viewer is shuffled along from one period, from one art object to the next without pause and without a sense of absorbing the information just conveyed. Perhaps if Goldstein expanded his documentary to feature length, he could allow time for viewers to catch their breath.
Despite its lackluster aesthetic, Black Is the Color is an informative introductory survey of essential African-American artists for those in need of one. Art historians, collectors, artists, and curators all explain their importance and situate the pieces in their specific historical contexts. One leaves the documentary with renewed awareness that recent battles over inclusion, representation, and appropriation are the results of struggles that have been going on for decades.