In honor of poet Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is featuring an installation of “Whitman, Alabama,” a 52-part documentary by filmmaker Jennifer Crandall. The exhibition combines the film with a collection of quintessentially American photographs spanning from the 1800s to today. It’s a touching celebration of diversity in America that is needed in our deeply divided country.
The project began when Crandall visited Alabama and became fascinated with the people and culture of the deep south. She wanted to create a portrait series of ordinary people using Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — a poem she believes captures the American spirit — as a uniting thread. Crandall approached strangers all throughout the state and asked if she could film them while they read a verse from Whitman’s poem. The result is a compelling collection of glimpses into the lives of Americans.
Why Whitman? Crandall answers this question on the project’s official website. According to her, Whitman was a pioneering poet. He chose to write about topics other poets in the 1800s considered trashy.
“It was about sex, race, religion, immigration, politics. Everything we’re wrestling with today,” Crandall said about her motive behind choosing this poem.
Not to mention, as Crandall notes, there’s something amusing about taking the words of a white Northerner living in the 1800s and using them to amplify the voices of the modern-day South.
While each section of the documentary is short, running about five minutes, I came away feeling like I had a sense of who each subject is as a person. Crandall has a knack for making people open up on camera, and the cinematography further brings out the essence of the subjects. The camera lingers on the subject’s faces, with close shots providing a sense of intimacy.
The set-up of the exhibition is sparse, with the film dominating the room. The documentary is projected on a white wall in the center of the room, with photographs lining the walls on either side. As the documentary played, I noticed how absorbed the viewers were. Most sat for the duration of a verse or two, seemingly mesmerized. A few times, I heard people laugh at the more humorous moments, and several commented that it was beautiful. I was surprised by the amount of audience interaction in a museum environment, but watching the documentary, it was easy to understand how people felt so invested.
When I visited the installation, I watched Verse 51, read by Donnie Goodwin. We are introduced to Donnie outside a grocery store selling candy and gum for a dollar apiece from his wheelchair. He gives his pitch in a computerized voice — “I sell candy and gum. Would you like to buy some?” — while the camera zooms in on the electronic device he uses to speak. We watch Donnie’s interactions with people who walk past. Almost the whole time, he is beaming, and I liked him from the start. He seems to be well known in his community, and as he jokes with his customers, his humor shines through.
The film is cleverly cut so that it transitions seamlessly between Donnie’s day-to-day interactions with customers and his reading of the poem. Whitman’s powerful words add a sense of gravity to Donnie’s everyday life. He is not just a man selling candy outside a grocery store. He exemplifies the face of the modern-day South and the face of America today.
The purpose of the documentary, as Crandall writes on the project’s website, is to find an answer to the question: “Who is America?” The exhibition provides many different answers. The subjects featured in the documentary come from a range of backgrounds, and experience life in America in different ways. Then there are the photographs, which represent America’s past and present. I saw some dated as early as 1887, while others were from the 21st century. They included a photograph of a man using public transport, a family standing outside their house, and a group of men standing in a breadline.
The best answer to the question is maybe given by Whitman himself — “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
While I would recommend visiting the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an immersive experience, clips from the documentary can be found on the “Whitman, Alabama” website. The installation will remain on display until June 9.