The World Is Not My Own

SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Get set for a voyage through worlds unseen in directors Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell’s vast documentary The World Is Not My Own, about visionary folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Sequences featuring the artist and her magic art house are done with stop-motion capture, resulting in a claymation effect done in black and white. Rowe (voiced by Uzo Aduba) did intricate drawings of the fantasy world she went to in order to escape the horrors of being Black in the South. A recurring subject in her work was Black wrestler Thunderbolt Patterson, who Rowe cheered on obsessively on TV. She also made unusual rag dolls as well as sculptures made from chewing gum. Rowe’s house was covered in her art, making her imaginary wonderland more of a reality.

“…gives Rowe a bluntness laced with fatigue, then runs veins of warmth and excitement under the surface like a hot spring.”

Rowe’s artwork came to prominence during the later second half of the 20th century in Atlanta. She was “discovered” in the 70s by Judith Alexander (voiced by Amy Warren), the gallery owner that had introduced Georgia to abstract art in the 50s. Alexander was the oddball daughter of the wealthy Atlanta attorney Henry Alexander. The documentary touches on how Judith’s father was involved in the historic murder trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched after being accused of murdering a white girl. It also goes into all the ghastly events Rowe endured, from the Atlanta race riots when she was a child to the Atlanta child murders decades later. All the while, the audience is treated to Rowe’s spectacular illustrations, lifting your perspective above the savage hatred swirling below. 

Aduba’s extraordinary voice work for the stop motion Rowe is the skeleton that allows the film to dance around. There are so many juxtaposed nuances in her delivery. She gives Rowe a bluntness laced with fatigue, then runs veins of warmth and excitement under the surface like a hot spring. The choice of black and white for the stop motion scenes is initially confounding, as Rowe’s work is so colorful. Ringbom and Stillwell then establish how mass communication in Rowe’s time was delivered through black and white TVs. This makes the monochrome aesthetic make sense, as worldwide importance to Rowe had always been presented without color. It gives the effect of a Rankin and Bass holiday special, which is one of the finest effects anywhere.

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