“I remind myself that much of television is now comic strip,” Ralph Ellison told TV Guide in 1988. It is not surprising that the author of Invisible Man would be uncomfortable with the cool medium. After all, Ellison’s only completed novel repeatedly attacks the vulgarity of literal representation to the point where even the novel’s hero is famously nameless. Ellison directs us away from appearances and keeps his hero running, from white cops, black nationalists, hypocritical Communists and corrupt academics, only to find himself nestled in the Dostoyevskian underground of the written word. Regardless of much of its politics, the literary Modernism of Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and others provided Ellison with an unlikely harbor from racism; representing that literary process on television is a little like disobeying Kafka’s instructions and drawing the insect of The Metamorphosis.
Yet in that same TV Guide interview, Ellison acknowledged that television “while very fleeting, has its permanent side, too, which allows you to go back.” Poised somewhere between comic strip, permanence and VH1’s Behind the Music, writer-producer-director Avon Kirkland has served up Ellison for middlebrow America in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. At its worst, Kirkland’s documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison’s triumphant novel, reducing its hallucinatory nuance to earnest television. At its best, the documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison’s disappointing life, and it is this haunting story that makes for a compelling made-for-TV biopic.
Since there is still no published biography of Ellison (there are two in the works, by Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad), Kirkland has the advantage of telling a story that has never been told in public before, at least not in any sustained, ostensibly objective way. Ellison may have told the story of hopping a freight train to enroll in Tuskegee as a scholarship student in an essay; but until you’ve seen his bandaged student ID and heard the narration of the story with a montage of trains, hobos and predators to the strains of Howlin’ Wolf, it’s not quite real in the way that TV makes events seem real. And unless you’ve dug through his archives at the Library of Congress, happened to be watching when, say, he was being interrogated by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show or had the opportunity to actually speak with him in person, Ellison’s TV persona–with his halting, Oklahoman elegance and stammering, reticent speech–may seem at first a great contrast to the defiant iconoclast you would find in his writing. Instead, whether you see him recount how he modestly resisted Richard Wright’s suggestion that he try his hand at fiction writing, humbly insist why he thought T.S. Eliot and Louis Armstrong were similar in their approaches, or listen to his own readings of his unfinished second novel–looking simultaneously bewildered and amused by the cadences of his own voice and the eccentricity of his own prose–he is the image of a man haunted. One photograph shows him hunched over the typewriter, with whiskey decanter ominously prominent, as the narrator gives us Ellison’s account of his lack of productivity in the 1960s. Referring to the mounting attacks on his integrationist vision from the kind of black nationalist voices he had already dreamed up in the figure of Invisible Man‘s Ras the Destroyer, Ellison said simply, “It’s hard to write with a clenched fist.”
Audiences have thrilled to rise-and-fall stories from Oedipus to VH1’s Behind the Music. But unlike the self-destruction of kitschy pop stars, Ellison’s supernova is a genuine tragedy; the stakes presented are nothing less than high art and racial understanding, and it is these stakes that are so at odds with a medium that favors sensationalism over sensation, and sentimentality over sentiment. “Why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?” asks the narrator of Invisible Man. Ellison answers with another question: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Ellison was particular about the way he did speak for us, and he made it clear that his own prose would be the only truly acceptable medium for this representation. The Modernist who retreated from the superficial expectations imposed by racism into the perfection of his own art would probably have been troubled to see key episodes in his novel–the grandfather’s deathbed speech, the Battle Royal episode, the revelation at the Liberty Paints factory–transformed from literary phantasmagoria into searing teleplay, in which Ellison’s ironies are turned into pieties and his jokes are transformed into obvious slogans. This is what television usually does, of course, but the very reason Ellison the documentary subject becomes a hero is that his achievement is in the less-than-telegenic activity of spending long hours in front of the typewriter.
But even if Kirkland’s documentary reduces Ellison’s novel to comic strip, the medium serves him well to provide the cultural context so crucial to Ellison’s reading of America. The sights and sounds of Ellison’s early life–complete with baby pictures, Tuskegee footage and Jimmy Rushing clips–are expertly captured, and anyone who wants to understand Ellison’s world would have to confront this context. Kirkland also succeeds by producing useful soundbites from commentators, including Robert O’Meally, Morris Dickstein, Farah Griffin, R.W.B. Lewis and especially Cornel West–who delivers his riffs like a Baptist preacher with borscht-belt timing and a Marxist liturgy. A word that many of these commentators use repeatedly is “complexity,” a favorite of Ellison’s. Yet sometimes complexity can be sacrificed for storytelling, especially on television.
This disparity is certainly evident when Henry Wingate tells a famous story of Ellison’s confrontation with a black nationalist at Grinnell College in 1967. According to Wingate’s version, when Ellison was called an Uncle Tom, he “became unglued and began to cry, repeating, ‘I’m not an Uncle Tom, I’m not an Uncle Tom.'” Wingate, a federal judge, should be taken at his word, but the late Willie Morris, in his memoir New York Days, allowed Ellison to retort, “What do you know about my life? It’s easy for you. You’re just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That’s all you’ll ever know about.” Kirkland’s version, corroborated by Morris’s son, paints Ellison as the kind of helpless victim his own work avoided depicting. Morris’s version allows Ellison to fight back–perhaps a little less congenial to a PBS tearjerker.
Of course, even a tragic TV documentary needs an optimistic denouement, and Kirkland provides it with the 1999 publication of Juneteenth. Ellison’s inability to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man was the bane of his existence, and perhaps the most frustrating literary waiting game in recent memory. We see Ellison lose more than 350 pages of the manuscript in a fire, retreat from public appearances at the horror of having to answer yet another question about the book, and become an alcoholic hermit, obsessively poring over manuscripts. What the documentary doesn’t mention is the quite legitimate argument leveled by many scholars, including Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review, that Juneteenth isn’t really an Ellison novel at all but a dubiously edited and spuriously marketed attempt by Random House to collect on its advance. Instead, we are shown a mellifluous reading by Toni Morrison of a passage from the book, with Robert O’Meally asserting that the passage seemed, “for that day, the greatest thing that had ever been written.” We also see GQ writer-at-large Terrence Rafferty acknowledging that while Juneteenth may not have achieved its vast ambitions, it is, “like America, forever a work in progress.”
It is true that textual scholarship does not usually make for good television, but there might have been another way to end the show on a triumphant note without making inflated claims for a highly disputed book. What the documentary could have shown was the rise of overtly Ellisonian institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, where founder and chair Henry Louis Gates has done considerable work in restoring Ellison’s reputation while using Ellisonian criteria as a curricular model, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Ellison’s vision of jazz has been a guiding principle for his confidant Albert Murray and his disciples Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.
Fifty years ago, Ellison’s notions that Louis Armstrong was an icon of artistic independence; that white and black culture were interdependent; and that there was more than a unicausal explanation for the rise of black American culture were the product of an original, idiosyncratic and routinely attacked individual. In the past few years alone, Ellison’s afterlife has been more prolific than the last forty years of his life: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain successfully used the theme of passing that Ellison struggled with throughout the writing of his unfinished novel. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, filled with overt references to Invisible Man, was also a perverse riff on Ellison’s integrationism, portraying whites and blacks as equally complicit in a common cultural phenomenon. And Ken Burns’s Jazz demonstrated how Ellison’s reading of Louis Armstrong as a transcendent genius who could “bend a military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound” could provide a significant basis for another PBS program. The frequencies of that station may not have been able to pick up on the full range of Ralph Ellison, but a rereading of his prophetic writings will continually remind us that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for us more than ever.