Eamon’s review published on Letterboxd:
Bill Traylor was born a slave in 1853 on a cotton gin plantation outside Montgomery Alabama with seventeen other slaves. During the final days of the civil war, Traylor saw the Union army destroying local infrastructure and crops which was effective but to a fault since Southerners further detested the Union. The Northern troops weren’t there to liberate the slaves, they just wanted to restore the Union. Finally, after the War, Traylor’s family was freed from bondage but thrust into further economic depression due to the Reconstruction, one of the most devastating policies placed on the South. The reconstruction brought on detrimental reforms like Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and an increase in racist violence by humiliated Confederates or Southern elites trying to keep the White hegemonic rule.
Traylor was a sharecropper which was just another form of slavery. Sharecroppers were expected to yield a certain amount of crops under the threat of large fines or imprisonment. Even worse, The Whites overseeing would sometimes be their former owners, and everyday life for freed slaves would be heavily policed and surveilled. Another flaw of the Reconstruction was President Johnson bailing out plantation owners, letting them keep or resell all of their properties. By denying freed slaves their promised reparations, most were never lifted out of poverty. Traylor fathered a fair amount of children and was twice married. He worked hard raising animals and planting crops all on land leased from his former owners.
Traylor's life was one of constant change and at the age of eighty-five, while homeless in Montgomery, he began drawing with a pencil and charcoal on cardboard. Local artist Charles Shannon spotted Traylor and was amazed by the sight of this man sitting on the sidewalk creating unique Art. After the two developed a friendship, Shannon gave him various paints and brushes which further evolved the elderly artist’s form.
Traylor produced over fifteen hundred works and transcended what at the time was called “primitive art” that portrayed stereotypical depictions of Black lives or the Harlem Renaissance. He avoided typical images harnessing a freewheeling narrative in his design showing: Southern rural moments, people in various circumstances, plants, and lots of animals. He also placed symbols throughout which some have speculated to be a subtle resistance towards Jim Crow laws and the disproportionate mistreatment of Black citizens.
Directed by Jeffrey Wolf, he conducts great interviews with subjects ranging from fellow artists to historians, and most importantly Traylor’s descendants. His surviving family including grandchildren and great-grandchildren shares some tragic and humorous anecdotes but it's affirming to see his life remembered. And what a life, to be born a slave, now his works are displayed in Museums across the Country.