‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ Review: An Ex-Slave and Elusive Artist Reclaims His Buried Place in History

‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ Review: An Ex-Slave and Elusive Artist Reclaims His Buried Place in History
Bill Traylor was born into slavery on a Benton, Alabama cotton plantation in 1853, but he died 96 years later as an artist then forgotten by history not far away in Montgomery in 1949. , and “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” effectively manages to do so in a punchy 70 minutes filled with a mix of clever, theatrical flourishes that don’t eclipse the artist himself. The film offers an insightful window into the jagged wonder of the bracingly modernist drawings he etched onto scraps of cardboard in his late 80s, when he was at the end of his life, looking back on days on the plantation, and on a lifetime spanning the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow segregation.

Why was Traylor mostly omitted from history for so long? The framework of American Black art in the mid-20th century, this documentary argues, didn’t exist in any robust way. But “Chasing Ghosts” isn
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