Review: ‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ brings to life a man who made his mark across time

Artist Bill Traylor in the documentary "Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts."
(Horace Perry / Alabama State Council on Arts)

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If every picture tells a story, the body of work displayed in the hauntingly intriguing documentary “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” speaks volumes on the life and times of the artist in question.

Born into slavery in 1853, the rural Alabama sharecropper wouldn’t officially pick up a pencil and piece of scrap cardboard until he was 85, but he would nevertheless amass a portfolio of more than 1,000 drawings and paintings over the next several years.

Taken individually, the pieces may appear deceptively simple — primitive images of animals, structures and couples often arguing or carousing — but together, the compositions share a folkloric quality, with Traylor’s personal connections to slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and the Great Migration filtered into an increasingly abstract canvas.

Drawing on that tradition of iconographic Black Southern storytelling, filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf incorporates spoken-word performances of passages by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as well as interpretive tap dance by Jason Samuels Smith to relate Traylor’s journey.


There’s also astute commentary from fellow artists, historians, critics and surviving family members who help to fill in the blanks between Traylor’s death in 1949 and the art world’s embrace of his work, starting in the late 1970s.

But it’s the pieces themselves, many of which were done on the backs of old cardboard signs, with Traylor incorporating the existing smudges, rips and even staples into his visual recollections, which lend those ghosts of his past a persistent, ethereal relevance.

‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’

Not rated

Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Starts April 16, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; and in limited release where theaters are open; also Laemmle Virtual Cinema