Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts ★★★½

A fascinating art-history footnote gets a comprehensive portrait in director Jeffrey Wolf’s profile of Bill Traylor, born a slave in Alabama and “discovered” as an artist while homeless and creating fascinating work on the street while in his 80s. Wolf uses plenty of historical documentation and readings from diaries to track the pre-art-career portion of Traylor’s life, turning it almost incidentally into an overview of the African-American experience in the late 19th and early 20th century, from emancipation to sharecropping to the Great Migration. But the best stuff comes in the opportunity to explore Traylor’s work, with art historians and collectors providing insightful commentary on thematic material ranging from male-female relations to “hoodoo” mysticism. And there’s a playful quality to the way Wolf presents it, like a pair of narrators who at times disagree over points of fact. The film bogs down near the end as it turns a focus to Traylor’s descendants coming to appreciate his legacy, and gathering together for a lengthy celebration/headstone dedication in 2018. It is, however, a bit more understandable since we’ve just come along on a similar journey of discovery.