Writer/director Kane Stratton's 10-minute short film Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet is set nearly 40 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, though America had yet to come near to reaching toward its promises and Dunbar's voice was to be a light within the dense fog of division and separation. The scene unfolds with Dunbar (A. Slate), Dayton, Ohio Mayor Charles Snyder (Timothy J. Cox), Dunbar's mother Matilda (MyJoy Filer), and a mayor's aide (Tanner James Brown).
It's immediately obvious there is a tension between Mayor Snyder and the strong-voiced Dunbar. It's a tension that will continue to rise, though glimpses of humanity peek through the broken shards of injustice.
The four have gathered to discuss the particulars around Dunbar's planned participation in an upcoming Fourth of July celebration. It is a meaningful celebration, perhaps for different reasons for both Mayor Snyder and Dunbar and there is some disagreement over specific parameters that threaten to turn what Mayor Snyder envisions as a day of controversy-free celebration while Dunbar is a poet only capable of speaking truths.
Dunbar offers a glimpse of the to be revealed poem "Sympathy," a soon to be celebrated Dunbar work containing words that will instantly be familiar to anyone familiar with the more contemporary Maya Angelou.
The mayor, at least on some level, both listens and hears and relents.
Brought vividly to life on the strength of A. Slate's piercing, relentless performance as Dunbar and a precise, passionate reading from "Sympathy," Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet exudes a dignity not often provided for the U.S.'s African-Americans in the early 19th century (or now for that matter). This is a historical drama that is faithful its its facts and in bringing those facts into the light within this year that has also brought us the federal recognition, finally, of Juneteenth.
Timothy J. Cox finds the subtle nuances of Mayor Snyder and chases them down and refuses to turn him into an easy caricature. There is a human within this man, though it's a human who carries within human both institutional responsibility and years of training and privilege. Cox, as usual, gives a strong performance.
The structural framework here provided by writer/director Kane Stratton is simple yet effective. Stratton clearly trusts the material to tell the story and that trust is rewarded. Music by Umvikeli G. Scott Jones is impressive throughout and Zack Richeimer's lensing captures the words left unspoken in the tension between Snyder and Dunbar.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: An American Poet is a short, engaging look into the U.S.'s first truly celebrated and nationally recognized African-American poet. It will likely have you rushing to look up more information about Dunbar, a man who would pass away less than two years after this conversation from tuberculosis at the far too young age of 33.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic