'Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance': Film Review

Courtesy of Vibecke Dahle
'Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance'
Talk-heavy but insightful and illuminating.

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Khadifa Wong's debut documentary explores the history and evolution of jazz dance, from its slavery-era roots through hip-hop and beyond.

At a moment when Americans and their institutions are acknowledging the consequences of long-held racist assumptions and policies, Khadifa Wong's Uprooted couldn't be more timely. A thoughtful and impassioned look at the often ignored roots of a quintessential American art form — one that can be traced back to people enslaved by the nascent nation — her documentary offers an enriching corrective to the official story of jazz dance, taking it beyond its already fascinating and complex showbiz luster to profoundly political terrain.

Nearly five dozen dancers, choreographers, educators and scholars — many of them multihyphenates with achievements in all four categories — offer their potent insights in Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, a selection of the recent online version of the Dance on Camera Film Festival. With so many smart people weighing in, the doc can be talk-heavy, especially in its final, repetitive section. But Wong and her DP, Matt Simpkins, understand the eloquence of bodies in motion, often capturing them to strong effect within the scrubbed, utilitarian interiors of rehearsal studios.

Uprooted pays tribute to a well-established lineage that includes such giants as Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole — and then examines why and how those 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 astute multihyphenates, considers the established lineage incomplete. She points out that Fosse and other successful midcentury choreographers codified jazz dance for Broadway and Hollywood, lending it a newfound legitimacy and teachability, and a way of talking about it, and making it easier for critics, audiences and practitioners to disregard its deep roots.

Wong devotes screen time to some of the lesser-known artists, among them Katherine Dunham, Pepsi Bethel, Fred Benjamin, Frank Hatchett and Jo Jo Smith (whose widow, Sue Samuels, and son Jason Samuels Smith are among those interviewed). Others appear just once in the film without a word of detail: intriguing photos and names in a list of the forgotten, an approach that hardly rectifies the essential problem the film is decrying (but might spark some googling).

Where Uprooted excels is in its incisive (and, for the most part, nimbly interwoven) commentaries observing the ways jazz dance, like jazz itself, embodies the very history of the United States. Stripped of identity, severed from their African cultures and forbidden to use drums because they were a form of communication, enslaved people 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, started on plantations, as did the satirical cakewalk. (Viewers of the film likely will think twice before ever again using the latter term in its usual breezy context.)

Wong and her talking heads make clear that the progression of jazz dance through the years is hardly a straight line, and they touch upon a number of alluring tangents as they explore the hierarchy and the vitality of American dance. Among them is jazz's shift from the danceable to the cerebral in bebop and hard bop in the work of such greats as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Some commenters describe the commodification of jazz dance as empty entertainment — not just on contemporary reality TV but among popular Black performers through the decades. Footage of James Brown and Little Richard, meant to underscore the point, instead serves as a reminder of the political symbolism of such performers.

In a clip from the 1985 dance drama White Nights, the character played by the much-missed 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 movie's thesis — but, like the doc as a whole, it favors talk over dance. Given the rich assortment of archival material on offer, it's hard not to wish that Wong had let some of it play at greater length, without explanatory voiceover. A key example is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers' breathtaking tap work with a live orchestra in 1943 — the commentary attests to their astounding talent, and the proof of it is over almost as soon as it begins.

Some of the interviewees, however — namely performers Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele — are delightful and magnetic in their body language even while seated and talking. The latter two recall their anti-musical-theater snobbery pre-Westside Story (for which Rivera created the role of Anita in the original Broadway production), and Allen speaks memorably of growing up in segregated Houston and the role in her life of Patsy Swayze (Patrick Swayze's mother), the only white dance teacher in Texas who welcomed Black children into her school.

The words may at times overexplain, but the visuals build a compelling case for dance as a primal means of expression, for the hard work of making dance look easy, and for the specific connectedness of juba to tap, the Charleston, swing, Broadway choreography and hip-hop street dancing. Uprooted shows that there's something not just lovely but urgent in that connectedness, whether it's the way many break-dancing moves date back at least as far as the '30s, or the soulful vibrancy of two dancers' physical dialogue in a rehearsal space, their wordless storytelling, born of brutal history, bracing and elegant against an expansive view 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
Editor: Joan Gill Amorim
Composers: Jeff Parker, Max Cyrus

94 minutes