'World' of Humanity PBS Documantary 'I'm Gonna Make Me a World' Celebrates Black History Month, but with a Disjointed View of Black Artists
Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Ted Cox TV/radio columnist
Dolphins have a language. Gorillas create and use tools. Parrots can be taught to count. And even dogs dream. But only human beings can translate their experience into art and, conversely, translate that art back into their own experience. It is my firm belief that art is what distinguishes humans from animals.
So when Ossie Davis opens the new PBS documentary "I'm Gonna Make Me a World" by saying that it is largely through art that blacks have declared their humanity over the last 100 years, from that moment on I'm rapt.
"Art was at one time the only voice we had to declare our humanity," Davis says. "When we were described as barely above cattle, certainly not human, it was our art that we had to show the rest of the world that indicated that possibly we were humans. Art as a basic fundamental element of human expression is more important to us now than ever before. And I would like to see us take it a little more responsibly."
That is the keynote speech for "I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts," which gets Black History Month off to a roaring start on TV at 8 p.m. Monday on WTTW Channel 11.
A century of black art is a big topic, too big even for this six-hour documentary, airing in six parts, two per night, continuing at the same time Tuesday and Wednesday. My main reservation is that I simply can't see how any such overview can avoid devoting ample time to Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Djuana Barnes or Ralph Ellison, none of whom is considered a "featured artist" in any of the six parts, which trace a chronological course through the 1900s. That said, what is here is very good, and it's not as if those artists haven't received their due elsewhere.
"I'll Make Me a World" seems more interested in a few artists who suggest essential aspects of the black experience. Monday's opening segment, "Lift Every Voice," makes a strong case for the importance of minstrel-show performer Bert Williams, a light-skinned black who typically wore black face on-stage.
"We have to hide our identity behind this mask in order to get things said and done," says Ben Vereen of that era.
The documentary points out that the cake walk, one of the century's first dance crazes, was popularized by Williams and his partner, George Walker, and that the comically pompous dance had its roots in the 1800s in slaves lampooning the uppity airs of their masters. That is art functioning as entertainment for whites, even as it functions as sly social criticism for blacks.
Monday's second part, "Without Fear or Shame," traces the rise of black women blues singers from Mamie Smith's 1920 "Crazy Blues," released on Chicago's own Okeh Records, to the prime of Bessie Smith, whose commanding delivery and boldly stated subject matter still sound daring today. …