Bill Traylor
Bill Traylor| Photo: Albert Kraus Collection, Tommy Giles PhotographicService, courtesy of Kino Lorber

‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ Filmmakers on Art in Troubled America

Filmmakers Jeffrey Wolf and Sam Pollard talk about artist Bill Traylor, born into slavery, whose works define this singular creative voice in American art.

Bill Traylor, Chasing Ghosts
Jeffrey Wolf
Kino Lorber
16 April 2021 (Kino Lorber and available to watch on Kino Marquee)

Producer Sam Pollard presents Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts (2020), directed by Jeffrey Wolf. The documentary explores the life of Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama. Following the Civil War, Traylor continued to farm the land until the late 1920s, when he relocated to a segregated black neighbourhood in Montgomery, Alabama. He became homeless in his 80s and started to draw and paint from his memories of the plantation and the changing urban culture he’d witnessed. 

As well as producing, Pollard is an editor and director. He collaborated with Spike Lee, producing When the Levees Broke (2016) and 4 Little Girls (1997). With the aid of newly declassified files, his compelling documentary  MLK/FBI (2020), reveals the hostile surveillance campaign against Martin Luther King Jr.

Wolf is also an editor, who began his career in narrative fiction, before transitioning into documentaries. He edited Ted Demmes’ Beautiful Girls (1996) and Life (1999), Andrew Davis’ Holes (2003), and his directorial credits include the documentary, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist (2008). 

In conversation with PopMatters, Pollard and Wolf discuss their approach to documentary filmmaking and how, amidst America’s continuing struggle with racism, Bill Traylor’s story is as present today as it was during his time.

Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

Sam Pollard: The one word I’d say is curiosity. I didn’t know the arc of my life when I was a young man. I thought I was going to be a businessman. I majored in marketing, but I wasn’t happy with that. When I was introduced to filmmaking, because of my love for watching movies, I didn’t see it as a career initially. What has kept me engaged since the beginning of that journey has been my curiosity. 

The thing about the documentary form is you learn about so many subjects. I learned about the horse world when I edited Just Crazy About Horses (Victor Kanefsky, Tim Lovejoy, and Joe Wemple, 1978), and the impact of hip-hop and graffiti artists when I edited Style Wars (Silver, 1983). I learned about the impact of [hurricane] Katrina on the people of New Orleans and Texas, in When the Levees Broke.

When Jeffrey reached out to me about the Traylor film, I didn’t know much about Bill Traylor. Watching Jeffrey’s process and the evolution of the film, I learned a lot about Bill Traylor. 

It has been my curiosity that has kept me excited and engaged in the documentary form. 

Jeffrey Wolf: I’d like to say what Sam said, but my path is very different. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and I went to college with the idea of being a journalist. I ended up in something called speech communication, which is a type of ombudsman career, where you mediate between two sides. In the process, I became a film major, and like Sam, I was interested in telling stories, but they tended to be in the narrative form. 

At that time, documentaries didn’t have the narrative reputation they have today. I worked with an editor named Alan Heim, who cut All that Jazz (Fosse, 1979) which, in my opinion, was the narrative approach of trying to make a narrative feel like a documentary. Now a lot of documentaries feel like narratives.

Sam and I have known each other for at least 30 years, and we ran parallel paths. He did some narrative films and I did some documentaries. I became very focused on narrative and I had a long career as a narrative filmmaker.

The idea of a biographical film about Bill Traylor was less interesting to me than a documentary. If I’d written this story as a biopic, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I set out to do. 

What’s so interesting about documentaries is putting these two worlds together, not just the narrative and documentary, but the ‘A’ and the ‘B’ story. You can find a way to tell a bigger story through these two worlds. Bill Traylor and the history of the South were on a parallel track, and they came together in a nice way. Sam does that in all of his films, and it’s the beauty of storytelling. 

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (Stern, 2021) offers an insight into the underground comic book movement of the ’60s, and We Are As Gods (Alvarado and Sussberg, 2020) explores another side to the decade through the life and work of American writer Stewart Brand, an advocate of resurrecting extinct species. 

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is another example of how the story of a person reveals a time and a place. The person and their society are inseparable.

Pollard: It’s one of the things I’ve always tried to do with the documentaries I’ve worked on, as an editor, and as a producer and director. The perfect example is 4 Little Girls (1997), that Spike [Lee] directed and I co-produced. 

We introduced their story through the death of the four girls. In the first act, we introduce you to a girl, then we give you the context of Birmingham, Alabama. We introduce you to a second girl, then we talk about the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] wanting to come to Alabama, and what that meant. Then we introduce you to a third girl and we talk about the racial issues going on with Bull Connor. 

I’ve always sought to use the individual to give you an insight into the larger context. It’s the characters that drive the story and give you a window into the larger context. Some people prefer it to be done with the context first, then go into the individual stories. I’ve always preferred to do it the opposite way. 

Wolf: Sam has spent as much time in Montgomery as I have, for various reasons. Montgomery is where the capital of the Confederacy was. It’s where the freedom marches took place, and there’s a lynching museum there. All these stories tell a different aspect of that world, and if you watch them together, you’ll begin to see a complete vision. 

You can’t tell the stories all at one time; that much is clear. When you talk about picking a character, it’s important to pick one whose narrative takes you on a specific journey and allows other things to come out through that character’s eyes. I used to work on comedies, and when we were editing, we’d talk about the set-pieces. The comedy had to come out of the characters; you couldn’t force the comedy. 

Throughout the film, you’re looking for connections to show how Traylor was drawing from his culture. It’s about the way we create a space for ourselves. For him, drawing gave him that space. 

Wolf: Art films tend not to be well received because they can be dry, or too academic. There are no audio tapes, and there are very few photographs of him. We have two things” the culture, and what I call showing the 40 mile radius of the world he lived in from his purview. He didn’t necessarily experience each thing personally, but chances are he knew about it in some form or other. You get the chance to take in those experiences as well.   

Pollard: A couple of amazing things come through in Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts. First of all, to understand there was this brief period when he was so creatively productive is amazing, and triumphant. Number two, I feel Jeff gave me a sense of life in Montgomery, Alabama in that period. Being a child of descendants of the South, it was eye opening to see the streets of Montgomery in the archival footage, and to understand what life was like in the segregated towns in the South.

Another thing is to understand the notion of creation. Jeff and I are creators because we want to be creators. Bill Traylor didn’t know he was a creator, which is more special than us always talking about being artists. It was in his bones, it was a faucet that opened and flowed out. It’s tremendously impactful and important to understand that about him.

Wolf: If you look at the drawings as a group, as the Smithsonian did, it tells a whole narrative that he accumulated over the three year period Sam talked about. It’s a life story of ancestry, history, and memory. They were all pouring out at one time. It’s remarkable. How did that happen?

If Traylor was creating without a full awareness of what he was doing, it’s worth considering the reality of the artist, versus our interpretation of their reality. 

Wolf: There’s the quote of [Pablo] Picasso’s, that when somebody asked him how long it took to do that painting, he said, “67 years and 5 minutes” [laughs]. 

You’re in London? We’re a young country here, and our history is still being dug up and figured out. You guys find Richard III’s body beneath a car park in Leicester, and that’s hundreds of years ago. History is always looked at in the tone of a huge history.

It’s barely 150 years ago that Bill Traylor was born and we’re still figuring it all out. It makes his work as present then as it is now. What’s going on in our country shows us that things haven’t changed much. 

Pollard: The thing to consider is Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts gives you a window into an America that’s still troubled, and trying to deal with the reckoning of race. It’s also an opportunity for those of us who live in countries like England, and in cities like London.

Your country has a complex history, dealing with people of colour and protestants. It forces us to think about how we need to deal with the notion of us versus them, how we see ourselves, and how we want to see others. We want to understand the humanity of all people.

A thought we should take away from the documentary is the importance that neither gender nor race should impede a person from contributing to art and culture. We must be vigilant to remain open-minded because patriarchal and racist attitudes have impeded the diversity of expression across artistic mediums. 

Wolf: It was a Brit who coined the phrase “outsider art”. His name was Roger Cardinal and he did a show in the ’70s at the Hayward Gallery. The reason he coined the term is that there’s something called “art brut”. Cardinal didn’t like the phrase for England, and so he coined the term “outsider”. 

When that art began to be spoken about at the Black Folk Art and America show in 1981-82, the only outsiders people could come up with were African Americans. A majority of the show were African Americans, and it started to be called “outsider art” here as well – that’s the lineage of how all of that took place. There are quite a few high level outsider artists in London, including a few big-time galleries: The Museum of Everything and The Henry Boxer Gallery. 

Is there a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person? Do you think the audience should be transformed through the experience of watching a film?

Pollard: The audience should go through a transformative experience. Part of our job as filmmakers is to create something where the audience walks away saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that. What did I just see? What did I just hear?” 

Do I feel a transformation after I finish a film? I’ve got to be honest with you, not when I finish it. I’ve been too deep in the mud of it for so long, that I don’t know how I feel about it. I have to step away from the film for a couple of years. When I come back and watch it, I’ll see and hear things where I’ll think, ‘Oh shit, that’s what that was trying to do’, or I’ll think, ‘Oh shit, that didn’t go right, what was I thinking?’ 

I’m hesitant to feel that one of my films has been transformative for me. I’m a harsh judge of my work, probably more than anyone else. Of the many of the films I’ve done, there’s only about ten that rise to the top.

Wolf: What you originally set out to do changes, because you grow during that period. I’ve been laughing about this Bob Dylan quote, when he won a Grammy for Time Out of Mind (1997). He said something to the effect of, “I didn’t know what I was doing when I did it, but I did it anyway.” 

I may be a little vainer than Sam in this regard. Having been an editor, I listen to what people say after they’ve seen the film, including things you just said. I know how to read through what people say, get rid of the compliment part, and get the gist of what they’re reacting to. 

After this film, I’m having a hard time thinking about what I’m going to do next. I checked off a bunch of boxes on this, and I’m trying to figure out what interests me. I have some ideas, but as Sam says, there could be ten films, and they become a bar. You want to go for it, and it’s disappointing when you go down that road and you don’t get there. I take it all as being like capturing lightning in a bottle. You never know.