Film Reviews

Purvis of Overtown

Purvis of Overtown. This straightforward but penetrating 2005 documentary traces the life and career of Purvis Young, a self-taught artist who grew up in Miami's notorious Overtown neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s. He still lives and works there, painting at an amazing pace and still working with whatever he can get his hands on — house paint, fragments of discarded furniture, scraps from construction sites, miscellaneous other found objects, including books and magazines, which he uses to reinvent the concept of "artist's book" to suit his own purposes. He also fashions his own makeshift frames from the same materials, and they're often even more crudely powerful than the paintings they surround. Thematically, Purvis has created a small but expressive urban iconography that he draws on again and again: Huge angel heads hover in the sky, wild horses run free in the city, distorted figures writhe in agony and/or ecstasy, and scenes of street protests, funerals, and acts of violence unfold almost ritualistically. Taken together, his paintings form a narrative of social injustice that is raw and violent yet also hopeful. The movie lets Purvis speak for himself much of the time, in his disarming, self-deprecating way, but it also includes commentary from people ranging from longtime Overtown residents to art-world figures to, of all people, Jane Fonda. Aside from being an affectionate portrait of the prolific artist, the film is also a fascinating history of Overtown. From the cosmopolitan community-within-a-community of its golden years, the neighborhood steadily deteriorated as thousands of its residents were displaced by such urban-renewal projects as interstate bypasses and mass transit. The downward slide continued with the racial unrest of the 1960s and the infusion of such street drugs as crack. All these things and more find their way into the art of Purvis Young, who might be considered the unofficial historian of Overtown. (Saturday, November 4, 7:15 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 66 minutes)
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Michael Mills