This World Is Not My Own @Nashville Film Festival
Making a documentary about an individual, when said individual has already died, presents challenges, not that said challenges are impossible to overcome; ask Ken Burns. But it’s entirely possible that someone somewhere is going to think of a new way to handle a documentary subject who has already died. The director Petter Ringbom certainly has. And his subject, whom I had never heard of, could not have lent herself better to his novel approach.
This World Is Not My Own: The Limitless Story of Nellie Mae Rowe, As Told In Four Acts tells the story of Nellie Mae Rowe, a folk artist who spent most of her life in Vinson, a black neighborhood of Atlanta. Over time, her small house in Vinson became one of her best-known art installations, an amalgamation of art she made, interesting objects she found, and interesting objects other people brought her–reminiscent, you can’t help but think, of her fellow outsider artist and Georgian, Rev. Howard Finster.
It’s Nellie’s house where our eyes first land, and we see Nellie herself, among the endlessly interesting things to look at, sweeping her porch and, talking either to herself or us, comparing herself to a bird in flight. This footage is in black and white, and we marvel that it exists–until we look closer, and realize that it isn’t film footage of her. It’s incredible animation, tactile and full of depth, like the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen, or the classic illustrations from View-Master reels. No, our Nellie Mae Rowe is animated, voiced here by Uzo Aduba, reciting things Rowe actually said or wrote down. It’s an approach I’ve never seen a documentarian take before, I’m surprised no one else (to my knowledge) has thought of it. I expect that, as this film gets known on the festival circuit and is seen by other documentarians that we’ll see more of it.
Ringbom also relies on some conventional documentary-filmmaker methods. There’s plenty of the tried-and-true interview footage, particularly of Rowe’s many nieces and nephews, and of members of Atlanta’s art community who knew Rowe and her benefactor/longtime friend Judith Alexander, whose ATL gallery was the first to display Rowe.
We see Alexander in archival footage and in animation with Nellie; the first time we see her, though, she’s a doll. She’s a literal doll, one of many in the first of the four “acts” of the film, Act One being It Was Just In Me. We learn from Rowe’s own words that she was born on July 4, 1900, in Fayetteville, Georgia; we immediately afterwards learn from her family that she probably wasn’t, but (1) claiming Independence Day as a birthday was a point of pride and a little self-aggrandizing (2) no one really knows anyway.
Rowe talks about her childhood and her first creative endeavor, doll-making. This consisted of assembling rags (or the next day’s laundry, to her mother’s chagrin), and making the dolls, then drawing on their faces with a pencil. She continues doll-making throughout her life, and we see them all about her house as an adult. Act One also gives us some backstory, seemingly incongruous, about Judith Alexander; her father was a wealthy Atlantan (an early investor in Coca–Cola) and a lawyer. He was not just any lawyer; we learn he was the lawyer for Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a pencil factory who was wrongly imprisoned and lynched for the murder of one of his employees. That may make Alexander pere sound like a champion of equality; don’t let it. Alexander was also part of a lynch mob during Atlanta’s 1906 race riot, the worst in US history. (Which begs the reasonable question, what does this have to do with Nellie Mae Rowe? We’ll come back to that.)
Act Two, called I Take Nothing and Make Something, finds Rowe going for rather a long time without creating much; she marries and moves to Vinings in 1930, her first husband dies in 1936, and she remarries (Henry Rowe) in 1939. Rowe builds the house that Nellie will eventually turn into art, but not yet; that comes after 1948, when Henry dies.
Nellie, now on her own, devotes herself fully to painting and drawing (leading to the other use of animation here, as her work in these mediums become pieces that fly into and out of the frame, making themselves before our eyes; the pieces from this era, we get critical interpretations of. Particularly interesting here is historian Maurice Hobson, who sees in Rowe’s work a desire to create her own world, a world where race is not limiting, where one lives on one’s own terms. He links her work, in other words, to Afro-Futurism and suggests that Nellie Mae is a precursor to Wakanda and Parliament/Funkadelic. I don’t disagree with him, but I suspect that Rowe wasn’t listening to Parliament or reading Black Panther in the Sixties and Seventies (where we find her as Act Two closes). She’s just at her house, making art, not being dissuaded by people who throw rocks and eggs at her home and refer to it as “The Witch House” (Sometimes to Rowe’s face).
As in Act One, we’re also given backstory on Judith Alexander, and on her father. The year 1954 occurs during Act Two, and with it Brown V Board of Education, which prompts the father to write venomous op-ed pieces for the Atlanta newspapers about what desegregation might do to Atlanta’s schools (e.g. the white citizens therein). Judith is not still in Atlanta by now; she’s a working artist in New York’s Greenwich Village, living as a full-tilt Bohemian–until dear old Dad gets sick, and she is forced to return home (to a house that literally looks like Tara from…that garbage-fire movie set in Atlanta that I won’t name here). Nonplussed, she brings her world home–she opens her own gallery, credited with bringing abstract art to Atlanta.
By now, I had questions about the Judith Alexander of it all, and why she seemed to be getting near-equal screen time to Rowe herself. Which is when we get Interlude: The Ties That Bind. Here, two things happen: an expert on the matter does a deep dive on the Leo Frank case, and a great-nephew of Rowe’s seeks out headstones in a Vinson cemetery (a largely unnoticed hillside between two parking lots, where most of the headstones are knocked over if they yet exist at all).
The great-nephew finally finds the grave of Henry Rowe, and the expert explains to us the modern consensus on the Frank case: the young girl was not murdered by Frank, but most likely by Jim Conley, another employee at the pencil factory who claimed to have found her body. Conley was black, and normally might have been readily doubted as a witness, but his testimony was eaten up by the court, because–if for that one moment–Jew trumped black when it came to sinister outsiders. And then we have the big reveal: Leo Frank, defended (poorly) by the father of Judith Alexander, was largely convicted by the testimony of Jim Conley, who was related to…Henry Rowe, Nellie’s husband. If I’m being honest with myself, this is one of the film’s weaknesses, or perhaps a weakness of my own perception; beyond the situational irony, which is profound, my overall response to this reveal was “…and?” If there’s a more explicit point made about the connections, I missed it.
On, then, to Act Three, How I Got Over, where I have to admit to finding another issue–there are really interesting narrative threads begun here, but I’m not sure where, if anywhere, they go. In 1975, she has a habit of watching wrestling every Saturday at 6:00–local circuit wrestling, before Vince McMahon and so forth. She grows enamored of one Thunderbolt Patterson, a black wrestler who is eventually driven out of his circuit for trying to unionize the wrestlers; before that happens, though, he becomes the subject of multiple Rowe paintings…but that’s all we hear of him for a while. In 1979, she begins to make artwork about the victims of the Atlanta child murders, and we learn that most of Black Atlanta (Rowe included) never really bought that Wayne Williams was solely to blame…and that’s all we’re told. (In retrospect, given what we’re shown about race relations in that town in the past, I don’t blame Black Atlanta.) Where there is a narrative through-line is that this is the era when people actually start noticing Rowe’s house not as a place to throw eggs, but to come and visit, tour, look, be pleasantly overwhelmed…and one of those folks is Judith Alexander, who decides to display Rowe’s work in her gallery.
Act Four’s title is I Leave My Hand, its name coming from a series of images Rowe made in which she “left her hand”, in her words–laid her hand flat on paper, traced it, and then embellished it as she saw fit. She would have her nieces and nephews do the same, and then she would judge who had the fancier hand. To her family’s amusement, she always chose her own hand to be the winner. By this time Rowe is 79, and the matter of leaving her hand–leaving her work, her legacy, and letting it be judged–is a very real matter. Alexander gets her work displayed at a massive folk art show in NYC; it’s all incredibly well-received and Rowe is compared to other major folk artists. Rowe, however, is oblivious to the work of others, describing her whole body of work as “just something I like to do.”
Alexander, finally receiving requests to buy Rowe’s work for a pretty penny, habitually finds reasons not to sell. Relatives of both Rowe and Alexander are at a loss as to why, except to speculate (as one hapless buyer does) that “both were outsiders, speaking truth to power,” and as such, felt too attached to the work. Rowe herself dismissed one potential buyer in 1982–Nancy Reagan, who, having seen her work, wants her to paint that year’s White House Christmas card. Rowe’s answer, in her own words? “It ain’t no poor people gon’ see that card, and it ain’t no black people gon’ see that card. NO.”
Unfortunately, Rowe herself never sees that card, whoever wound up painting it. She dies of myeloma in 1982, leading to a packed funeral in which recordings of Rowe herself singing Gospel songs are played. As for how Rowe left her hand, that’s a mixed basket. We learn, devastatingly, that her delightful house was rendered in animation because it had to be–Vinson was largely bought and gentrified, and her house was demolished and replaced by an Indigo Hotel. [Ed note: insert horrified scream at outsider art being replaced by a bland chain hotel!]
But Rowe lives on in other ways; we see a classroom of elementary students in Kuwait City learn about her, after which they draw their own hands. And a narrative loose end is tied up–we meet Thunderbolt Patterson himself, at Atlanta’s High Gallery. He says that now, whenever anyone looks him up, it’s really because of her, and we’re there when he sees a painting of himself on display at the High. All he can say is “She kept me alive.”
Great artists can keep ideas and people and whole worlds alive. This movie keeps Nellie Mae Rowe alive and invites us into her delightful world.