Review: One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story

Sadly, the film never poses the argument that Reverend Albert Wagner’s work is special precisely because it illuminates the politics of shame.

One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story
Photo: ViewCave

The bad cat is Reverend Albert Wagner, a renowned outsider artist and father of some 30 children who turned to painting when he was 50. Before that he was only interested in pussy, something he and his wife and mistresses openly cop to but is abundantly clear from his paintings. Thomas G. Miller spends no time on Wagner’s youth, and aside from an astute comment by journalist and collector Nik Cohn that Wagner was trying to do penance for a life of sin through his artwork, the director insufficiently grapples with Wagner’s spiritual transformation and ardent belief that God was guiding his brush (“He called me…I didn’t do it,” says Wagner). More interesting to the filmmaker is the mixed feelings Wagner’s artwork continues to rouse, mostly how the man’s wild entanglements of sexual and racial imagery seem to point to his internalized racism. But the documentary gives the impression of trying to excuse its lack of direction because Wagner’s art itself is so difficult to pin down. Feeling scattershot as it jumps to and from guarded interviews with members of Wagner’s mammoth family and art-world figures who’ve championed his work, the film finds its footing whenever Johnny Coleman, professor of African-American Studies and Fine Arts at Oberlin College in Ohio, speaks openly about Wagner’s troublesome images and the appeal those images have for whites. Coleman admits he could be wrong, but he raises interesting questions about Wagner and his artistic and spiritual purpose, though Miller never seals the deal by posing the argument that Wagner’s work is special precisely because it illuminates the politics of shame.

 Cast: Albert Wagner, Delroy Lindo, Lynell Calloway, Aarne Anton, Nik Cohn, Camille Billops, Johnny Coleman, Lena Calloway, Bernice Upshaw Daniels, Nancy Dickenson, Patricia Handal, Bonita Wagner Johnson, Magnolia Wagner  Director: Thomas G. Miller  Running Time: 81 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2008  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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