My lecture yesterday on the Harlem Renaissance was framed by clips from two rather different documentaries about the movement: the 1993 PBS film Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance and Isaac Julien’s docu-fantasia, Looking for Langston (1988), which we described last year in the blog.
One of the virtues of Against the Odds is that it shows a side of the Renaissance rarely discussed in literature classrooms: the visual and performing arts. It does a good job of setting the Renaissance into an institutional context and highlighting the role of white patronage, with a particular focus on the efforts of the . Founded in 1922 by a white real estate developer named William E. Harmon (1862-1928), the Foundation sought to recognize African American achievements in visual and performing arts as well as in a variety of other fields.
Against the Odds is illuminating, if a little bit pious. In our course, the film also serves as an example of the kind of standard documentary that Looking for Langston seeks to queer. Indeed, Isaac Julien uses some of the same documentary footage used in Against the Odds.
Both films are available in DVD. Pick them up either at amazon.com or Netflix and cue them up for a double feature. You’ll learn something not only about the Harlem Renaissance but also about the nature of “the documentary.”