‘This World Is Not My Own’ Review: The Story of a Self-Taught Artist Breaks From Doc Tradition in Rewarding Ways
Like Louis Armstrong, Nellie Mae Rowe claimed July 4, 1900, as the day she was born. If definitive records could be found in either case, they might indicate a less symbolic date. But for Black Americans born into poverty in the Jim Crow South, as Armstrong and Rowe were, that symbolism — Independence Day, the dawn of the century — is significant. Rowe took her independence seriously, as the captivating film portrait This World Is Not My Own makes vibrantly clear. After years of farm work and many more years as a domestic servant, the twice-widowed Georgian decided, in the powerful words of one of her great-great-nieces, “to design my life the way that I want it while I’m on this journey passing through.”
Whether you call her a folk artist, an outsider artist or simply self-taught, Rowe devoted herself with joy to her paintings, drawings and chewing gum sculptures (using gum she’d chomped herself, thank you very much, other people’s donations declined) . She turned her house — alas, no longer standing — into the Playhouse, filling it with her art, hanging the trees in the yard with her creations as well as found-object adornments, and inviting friends, neighbors and strangers to explore. There were drive-by harassers lobbing rocks and firecrackers at the “hoodoo witch,” but there was also Judith Alexander, scion of a prominent Atlanta family and a fellow oddball who would become Rowe’s friend, gallerist and champion — even if she had trouble selling. the artist’s pieces because she treasured them all so dearly.
This World Is Not My Own
The Bottom Line
Fittingly playful and bold.
This World Is Not My Own — subtitled “The Limitless Story of Nellie Mae Rowe, as Told in Four Acts” — takes an unorthodox approach to biography, less concerned with chronology than with synchronicity, tangled lines of Southern connection and revelatory degrees of separation. In a spirit of inventiveness that honors their subject, directors Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell interweave their new interviews and historical material with sequences of 3D animation built upon motion-capture work by Uzo Aduba and Amy Warren, who portray Nellie Mae and Judith, respectively. in scripted scenes that are “based on direct quotes.”
With an apt handmade aesthetic, the filmmakers have reimagined Rowe’s Playhouse for their hybrid documentary. (Their sets of her home and yard were featured in the retrospective exhibit Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowewhich opened at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in 2021, and whose travels included a stop at the Brooklyn Museum in 2022.)
The story of the friendship between Rowe, a Black woman one generation removed from slavery, and Alexander, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish attorney who opposed desegregation efforts, is a quintessential story of the South. In Vinings, a Black section of the metropolitan Atlanta area where the railroad tracks were the literal line of demarcation, Rowe lived in obscurity until Alexander, an artist turned gallery owner, brought her work into the art world, complete with a show in Manhattan. Friends and relatives of both — many of them great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews of Rowe, who had no children of her own — share their recollections, while historians, curators and collectors offer broader insights.
The least predictable of the talking heads is Andrew Young, the activist, diplomat and former mayor of Atlanta. Many documentaries that have nothing to do with politics per se include well-known political figures to lend some sort of seriousness or cachet. I’ve lost track of how many times Bill Clinton has popped up in documentaries that definitely didn’t need him. But there’s nothing extraneous or fawning about Young’s inclusion here. In fact, he provides some of the most cogent comments in the film, name-checking Jacob Lawrence, Barbara Jones-Hogue and Noah Purifoy, among others, and pointing out that visual artists are an essential but rarely recognized element of the struggle for social justice
After the deaths of her second husband, a farmer, and her longtime employer, Rowe recommitted herself to her childhood love of making dolls and drawing. What she created was, according to one niece, “a child’s wonderland.” Rowe’s paintings vibrate with a rich, fauve-adjacent palette (she used felt-tip pens, colored pencils and crayons), fusing her life story with leaps of fantasy. Many of her canvases evoke childhood memories, of sorts both fond and disturbing — the Atlanta race riot of 1906 was the most extreme explosion of the white terror that was intrinsic to her formative years. This World brings those paintings to life onscreen, sometimes building them piece by piece: They bloom.
The twists, turns and detours in the story the directors tell include an “interlude” about the infamous case of Leo Frank (subject of the musical Parade), a Jewish man who, in what many regarded as a miscarriage of justice, was convicted of the rape of a teenage factory worker. When his death sentence was commuted, a mob took matters into their own murderous hands. Henry Alexander, Judith’s father, represented Frank. A few years earlier, Henry was a member of another mob, a militia that took matters into its own hands against Black citizens of Atlanta. The paradox is astonishing.
“All these people are connected,” says William Conley, the amateur historian who helps to guide us through Nellie Mae Rowe’s Atlanta. In what he calls “a graveyard in ruin,” a patch of neglected Vinings land by the side of the road, he searches among the small stone markers, many of them buried in fallen leaves, for the grave of someone close to Rowe. A former wrestler named Thunderbolt Patterson shows up too, his importance to Rowe a moving reminder of how few Black people appeared on TV only a few decades ago. Patterson’s story might be worthy of its own documentary; the helmers flash a New York Times story about him on the screen, but you’d have to be watching the film on a home device in order to freeze the frame and read any of it.
Ultimately nothing in the film, not even a visit to a present-day classroom in Kuwait, feels too far afield; it all captures one aspect or another of Rowe’s work and its legacy. The voice work by Aduba and Warren is alive with Rowe and Alexander’s droll ebullience and mutual, ornery affection. Aduba might not match the timbre and depths of Rowe’s voice, but she delivers a distinctive vocal performance, in voiceover monologues and performed scenes as well as in song.
When Rowe and Alexander went to New York for Rowe’s much-heralded show at the influential Betty Parsons Gallery, the artist wasn’t particularly impressed with the city, and couldn’t understand the to-do over her pictures. They were simply things she enjoyed doing. Rowe might not have bought into all the attention she was receiving, but, having worked for other people most of her life before putting all her energies into what mattered to her, she understood the value of that work. And so when, near the end of her life, a request arrived from Nancy Reagan to design the White House Christmas card, she turned her down. In one of this dynamic film’s many incisive recollections, a friend recalls her response: “Ain’t no poor folks gonna see that Christmas card? Ain’t no Black folks gonna see that Christmas card? Then,” Nellie Mae Rowe concluded, “I ain’t gonna do it.”
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