Ralph Ellison: An American Journey is the first documentary on one of the most gifted and intellectually provocative authors of modern American literature. It establishes Ellison as a central figure in contemporary debates over art, politics, race and nationhood. Narrated by Andre Braugher, the film brilliantly presents the first scenes ever filmed from Ellison's landmark novel, Invisible Man.
The extended Film version is nothing less than a virtual forum on Ralph Ellison and the ideas he embraced. It features fascinating discussion of African American identity, The Black Arts movement, Ellison's blues based interpretation of Black survival, Toni Morrison reading from Ellison's second novel, and much more. Some of the best minds in literary and cultural criticism -- Baraka and Crouch, Cornel West, Clyde Taylor, Robert O'Meally and many others, debate Ellison's richly symbolic characters and narrative trajectories. Ralph Ellison: An American Journey locates the origins of Ralph Ellison's artistic and intellectual aspirations in his upwardly mobile family who left the South for the relative racial fluidity of the newly ratified state of Oklahoma and named their son after poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship, but he found himself increasingly drawn to modernist literature and writing.
He would later fuse elements of Eliot, Hemingway and Black folklore in the dizzying style of the jazz that he played and loved. After Ellison moved to New York, he associated with the Federal Writers Project and became a protegee of Richard Wright, who encouraged him to choose writing over music. After publishing short stories, articles and reviews, Ellison typed the words "I am an invisible man" and began the seven-year journey that paid off in his masterpiece. This richly symbolic, ironic, and often surreal novel describes a quest much like Ellison's own to invent an identity independent of that imposed by society. Winner of the 1953 National Book Award, Invisible Man thrust Ellison not only into prominence but also into the vortex of the battles raging over the role of literature and art in politics, and specifically over Ellison's rejection of the "protest novel." Black Arts activists of the 1960s and 1970s condemned Ellison's integrationist stance and "disengaged voice."
In Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, Cornel West, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Terrance Rafferty and other cultural critics, reconstruct those debates and discuss the roles and responsibilities of a "Negro writer." Ellison's responses to his critics are collected in the essays in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. He held that American Blacks and whites, whether they know it or not, are entwined in building a common national experience. Perhaps it was the difficulty of achieving such a synthesis that led to Ellison's famous struggle on his never completed second novel, Juneteenth, published only after his death. In the film, friends and critics discuss the book, but it's a poignant reading by Toni Morrison that brings the novel to startling life. Ralph Ellison: An American Journey explores the many ways one of our most important writers and thinkers grappled with the question: "What does it mean to be an American?"
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