At a time when Americans and their institutions recognize the consequences of long-standing racist assumptions and policies, Khadifa Wong Uprooted couldn’t be more timely. A thoughtful and passionate look at the often-overlooked roots of a quintessential American art form—tracing back to those enslaved by the fledgling nation—his documentary offers a rewarding corrective to the official history of jazz dance, the carrying beyond its already fascinating and complex showbiz sheen into deeply political terrain.
Nearly five dozen dancers, choreographers, educators and scholars – many of whom have multiple hyphens with accomplishments in all four categories – offer their powerful insights on Uprooted: the journey of jazz dance, a selection from the recent online version of the Dance on Camera Film Festival. With so many smart people weighing in, the doc can be very talkative, especially in its last repetitive section. But Wong and his DP, Matt Simpkins, understand the eloquence of moving bodies, often capturing them forcefully in the clean, utilitarian interiors of rehearsal studios.
Talk-heavy but insightful and enlightening.
Uprooted pays homage to a well-established lineage that includes such giants as Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole – then examines why and how these talented white men are the acknowledged masters of the form while many black innovators are barely known. Melanie George, among the film’s most engaging and shrewd multi-traitors, considers the established lineage to be incomplete. She points out that Fosse and other successful mid-century choreographers codified jazz dance for Broadway and Hollywood, giving it a newfound legitimacy and pedagogy, and a way to talk about it, and allowing critics, audiences and practitioners to more easily ignore its deep roots.
Wong devotes screen time to some of the lesser-known artists, including Katherine Dunham, Pepsi Bethel, Fred Benjamin, Frank Hatchett and Jo Jo Smith (whose widow, Sue Samuels, and son Jason Samuels Smith are among the questioned person). Others appear only once in the film without a word of detail: intriguing photos and names in a forgotten list, an approach that does little to correct the essential problem that the film exposes (but which could generate some Google searches).
Or Uprooted excels in its incisive (and, for the most part, deftly intertwined) commentary on how jazz dance, like jazz itself, embodies the very history of the United States. Stripped of their identity, cut off from their African cultures, and forbidden to use drums because they were a form of communication, slaves were silenced people, and dance became a necessary language, a form of survival and a means of protest. The dance known as Pattin’ Juba, a foundation of jazz dance, began in the plantations, as did the satirical cakewalk. (Viewers of the movie will probably think twice before using that last term again in its usual windy context.)
Wong and his talking heads make it clear that the progression of jazz dance over the years is not a straight line, and they hit a number of seductive tangents as they explore the hierarchy and vitality of American dance. Among them, the transition from danceable to cerebral jazz in bebop and hard bop in the work of greats like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Some commentators describe the commodification of jazz dance as empty entertainment — not just on contemporary reality TV, but among popular black performers over the decades. Images of James Brown and Little Richard, intended to emphasize this point, serve instead as a reminder of the political symbolism of these artists.
In an excerpt from the 1985 dance drama sleepless night, the much-missed character played by actor and hoofer extraordinaire Gregory Hines, describes his experience as a novelty act: the “cute little colored kid tappin’ away.” It’s a well-chosen scene that goes to the heart of the film’s thesis – but, like the doc as a whole, it favors conversation over dancing. Given the rich assortment of archival material on offer, it’s hard not to wish Wong had let some of it play longer, without an explanatory voiceover. A key example is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers’ jaw-dropping work with a live orchestra in 1943 – the commentary attests to their astonishing talent, and the proof of that is over almost as soon as it begins.
However, some of the interviewees – namely performers Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele – are lovely and magnetic in their body language even when they’re sitting down and talking. These last two recall their anti-musical theater snobbery beforeWest Side Story (for which Rivera originated the role of Anita in the original Broadway production), and Allen memorably speaks of growing up in segregated Houston and the role in his life of Patsy Swayze (Patrick Swayze’s mother), the only white dance teacher in Texas who welcomed black children into her school.
Words can sometimes overexplain, but the visuals make a compelling case for dance as a primary medium of expression, for the hard work to make dancing easy, and for juba’s specific connection to tap, Charleston, swing, Broadway choreography. and hip-hop street dancing. Uprooted shows that there’s something not only charming but urgent about this connection, whether it’s the way many break-dancing moves date back at least to the 1930s, or the moving dynamism of the physical dialogue of two dancers in a rehearsal space, their silent storytelling, born out of a brutal, invigorating and elegant story set against sweeping views of the city below.
Venue: Dance On Camera Film Festival
Production companies: LDR Creative in association with On the Rocks Films
Director: Khadifa Wong
Producer: Lisa Donmall-Reeve
Executive Producer: Vibecki Dahle, Dan Kopp
Director of photography: Matt Simpkins
Publisher: Joan Gill Amorim
Composers: Jeff Parker, Max Cyrus