Ralph Ellison: An American Journey


Bottom 20% of all time (see others with this rank)

Festival Year

2002 (click here to see all competition films from this year)


Documentary Competition

Non-Cast Credits

Avon Kirkland, Yanna Kroyt-Brandt, Bobby Shepherd, Henry Adebonojo, Ken Schneider, Laurie Coyle, Elise Robertson, Jacques C. Smith, John Amos, Paul Benjamin


Works about Ralph Ellison always emphasize two facts: he was the author of one of the great American novels of the twentieth century, Invisible Man, and he never completed another novel before his death in 1994. Avon Kirkland, producer, director, and writer of Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, certainly makes this point, although, to be clear, he augments the explanation for why this may be true quite comprehensively. But Kirkland does much more than simply reduce the history of this seminal figure in American letters to a question of why he never finished a second important work of fiction, and in doing so presents a portrait of African American art and literature and the politics of black culture that informs, provokes, and elucidates an intellectual hisstory that needs foregrounding and a forum.

Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Ellison traveled to Harlem in the 1930s and became a writer of short stories and criticism. Influenced by novelist Richard Wright and others of that tumultuous era, he found his life changed by the publication of Invisible Man in 1952 and his winning of the National Book Award. Through clips from films based on his work and interviews with a range of luminary black intellectuals such as Cornel West and Thulani Davis, Kirkland reopens a debate about the changing role of the black artist and, more specifically, about Ellison as a focus of criticism in the 1960s and as an icon of American literature. Astute, challenging, and marvelously produced, this is a cultural story that will forcefully broaden the images of African American history.


Geoffrey Gilmore (see other films reviewed by the same reviewer)

Film Takes Pace.