Wednesday, December 09, 2020

ADIFF ’20: Paul Laurence Dunbar—Beyond the Mask

Someone ought to produce a two-man show based on the lives of long-time friends and Dayton, Ohio residents Paul Laurence Dunbar and Orville Wright. It would be a natural vehicle to cash-in on some duo’s movie buddy chemistry, while also telling some little-known history. The truth is the pioneering aviator was a classmate of the great poet, who even helped his friend print Dayton’s first African American newspaper (during its brief tenure). Frustratingly, some of Dunbar’s best-known lines, like “I know why the caged bird sings” are now better known from other writer’s usages. The poet gets the prestigious biographical documentary treatment he deserves with Frederick Lewis’s Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask which screens virtually as part of the 2020 NY African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Dunbar was the son of parents who were slaves before Emancipation. The life of his father would also make a compelling film, considering how Joshua Dunbar escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad, but subsequently enlisted twice with Union Army, to fight during the Civil War. His mother gleaned reading lessons from neighborhood children to pick up enough understanding to encourage his studies. Obviously, he excelled, facing little prejudice during his school years, but a great deal after.

Eventually, Dunbar became probably the most prominent African American poet of his day—and in that day, contemporary poets were much more widely read than they are now. He had significant champions including Frederick Douglass, but even after he attained literary fame, he still experienced career ups-and-downs.

American Masters will eventually pick-up Paul Laurence Dunbar, because it perfectly fits their mission and it is of greater quality than at least half of what they present. Lewis does terrific work grounding Dunbar as a product of Dayton. In doing so, he also inspires fresh new respect for Orville Wright (fittingly, the city has rechristened their old neighborhood Wright-Dunbar, anchoring the district with a museum dedicated to their three favorite sons).

Lewis and his resident experts nicely chronicle Dunbar’s life, giving viewers a generous sampling of his verse along the way. They cover all the significant peaks and valleys. Yet, it is the small details they uncover that really paint the picture. For instance, early in his career and then again later in life, Dunbar dabbled in writing westerns. Frankly, we would argue that does not diminish his literary rep in the slightest. To the contrary, it shows how under-appreciated the genre remains.

Dunbar should be better remembered in our national collective consciousness (and so should Countee Cullen, who often visited him and wrote the elegiac “For Paul Laurence Dunbar”). Lewis’s documentary could help re-popularize Dunbar (especially if it finds a broadcast home). It is certainly educational, but never dry. As a bonus, it licensed Abby Lincoln’s recording of Oscar Brown Jr’s arrangement of Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings,” which sounds fantastic playing over the closing credits. Highly recommended,
Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask screens virtually today through Sunday (12/13), as part of this year’s ADIFF.