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Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet

average rating is 3 out of 5


Oliver Weir


Posted on:

Mar 11, 2022

Film Reviews
Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet
Directed by:
Kane Stratton
Written by:
Kane Stratton
A. Slate, Timothy J. Cox, MyJoy Filer, Tanner James Brown

Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet is a fierce, though frequently creaky, short by Kane Stratton.


The year is 1903, and the setting is the Dunbar residence in Dayton, Ohio. Paul Laurence Dunbar (played by A. Slate), the prolific black poet and short story writer, is dining with Mayor Snyder (Timothy J. Cox) and his associate, Fitzgerald (Tanner James Brown). Snyder would like Dunbar to perform at the upcoming 4th of July extravaganza, but only if Dunbar agrees to remove his hat during the national anthem. Dunbar refuses; and his eloquent rebuttals fail to convince the mayor. Just as the men are set to leave, Dunbar previews his celebrated poem Sympathy.


There are two things to enjoy in this short film: Dunbar’s poetry and Slate’s performance; to a large extent each is enlivened by the other. Slate is a fierce and commanding presence, and she exudes such a fluency and admiration for her subject. She effortlessly stirs up the bounding spirit of Dunbar’s poetical voice in her recitation of Sympathy, and each of her scoffs and snipes burns with the frustration of an artist who is heard but not listened to. The poem is, however, the only dependable dialogue for Slate. Much of the original script comes across as flashy exposition, and every second line has ‘I am a poet’ chiselled into it. But the poetic diction and frequent verbal flourishes are not necessary for us to believe that Slate is Dunbar and that Dunbar is a poet — the ending is proof enough. Too much affectation and you’re liable to start sounding like Barton Fink.


Still, as enjoyable as Slate is, there’s a nagging feeling that she’s out of place. Her voice longs to echo in a theatre, and it seems always to be searching for more people than are present in the room. Looking at the rest of Paul Dunbar, it’s hard to see how the film format benefits it beyond matters of accessibility. Its neat narrative arc culminates like a work of theatre, and its simple set design — two rooms, a table, and a coat stand — seems ready-made for a one-act play. Cox’s style of address, too, which at times sounds a bit wooden and self-conscious, would benefit from a more intimate, oratorical setting.


It seems there was a temptation looming over the supporting cast to try and give barnstorming performances with only five lines of dialogue, and none seems to have handled it particularly well. Brown resists the urge and is barely noticeable — except for his hairdo, which seems a little outré for 1903; MyJoy Filer, who plays Dunbar’s mother, takes up the impossible challenge but frequently overacts (both the ‘reputation’ and ‘with cream’ lines); and Cox, who has a few more lines to work with, dabbles in the fight and flight approaches but settles down towards the end, forging a weaselly and uncompromising Mayor Snyder out of some fairly creaky establishing dialogue: ‘True, Dunbar, I had hoped we would see eye to eye after sharing a meal together.’


But all in all this was a neat short, and it serves as a touching tribute to one of America’s finest poets. And while much of the script fell flat, it was nevertheless a poignant decision by writer/director Kane Stratton to leave the question of Dunbar’s appearance at the extravaganza unanswered. Together with Umvikeli G. Scott Jones’s score — triumphant, pained and reflective — it elegantly connects a history of symbolic protest, from hats on heads to fists in the air to knees on the field.

About the Film Critic
Oliver Weir
Oliver Weir
Short Film
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