Written and directed by Kane Stratton, 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, America had yet to reach her promise to all citizens. So the day had come when a prolific writer and poet called to the world, he reminded us all that we ought not lack our most sacred virtues: compassion and sympathy. Starring: A. Slate, Timothy J. Cox, MyJoy Filer and Tanner James Brown.
When you’re trying to pay homage and respect to a beloved figure of history, it’s always going to put a lot of pressure on the actor to do them justice but it’s fair to say A. Slate achieves that without question. Right from the opening Slate has a strong, eloquent, intelligent presence, one that’s compelling to watch and the words come rolling from the tongue with a natural rhythm and gravitas. When the performance is paired with Timothy J. Cox’s Mayor, it works even better, the lightness, arrogance and self-importance which he conveys, give Slate’s Dunbar even more weight. It’s a very classic archetype of the period but as well as ticking all the usual boxes, Cox does manage to retain within the Mayor, one glimmer of hope that he can put aside his prejudices. Filer and Brown round out the cast and keep it with a family friendly air, had it just been the two of them it would have perhaps traversed into a more intense arena.
Stratton’s writing keeps the story accessible, it walks several lines between both a conversation about civil rights and of the arts. It’s impossible not to make the parallel between Dunbar discussing not removing his hat during the national anthem and Colin Kaepernick kneeling. A more depressing comparison when you think that these moments are over a century apart and the conversation continues to need to be had. With a good deal of the script being the poetry itself, the whole film retains a naturally flowing rhythm to it, the pacing has that classic feeling of strong intent and impactful meaning.
The visual fits the period extremely well, it’s not always an easy thing to do convincingly on an indie budget but keeping itself contained in one location was a clever choice. The setting is perfect for the era, and the costume work is great. Stratton’s direction is focused, it holds the shots and lets the words land, moving more in the lighter moments then slowing and appreciating the dialogue in others. The style itself also feels fitted to the time period, it has that dramatic edge and doesn’t try to be too flashy or complex.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet is a film anchored by its lead, A. Slate gives a strong, confident and eloquent performance, bringing weight to the words and a compelling presence. Timothy J. Cox provides a great contrast, pushing even more focus onto Dunbar. The era setting is styled very well, everything matches the period and gives that old-fashioned, more polite and refined atmosphere. The film without doubt succeeds in paying homage and justice to its namesake.