Black White + Gray draws out the unseen riches that exist within what may otherwise appear typical or commonplace. Such subtle complexities are all too fitting for a film whose gaze rests upon the great art curator Sam Wagstaff—an individualistic and revolutionary purveyor of photography and long-time repressed homosexual—and his lover/partner Robert Mapplethorpe, a man 25 years his junior and from almost as opposite a background as was possible. Wagstaff’s artistic ambitions saw him rebelling against the high society into which he was born, while Mapplethorpe’s blue-collar experiences provided an antithetical quality that created an unlikely symbiosis between the two. At its core, the film is an exploration of the complications that arise amid two different elements (whether between two seemingly unrelated works of art or between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe themselves), and through a finely, sensually assembled montage of images, interviews, and generally unobtrusive narration, it is one evoked with a crystalline clarity. Although its relatively schematic construction sometimes works against its best intentions, Black White + Gray uses these documents not as historical facts but as organic representations of life and lives past, aiming less to assemble some larger puzzle than to simply navigate the terrain at hand. Like Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud, the film understands that the leftovers of these lives aren’t so much answers as they are invitations for additional exploration. While Wagstaff’s oppressed passions and lifestyle choices manifested themselves in his use of photography as a means of personal self-discovery, Mapplethorpe’s artistic confrontations of the sexual undercurrents in society were similarly confronted by bouts of dismissal and anger; together, the two probed into deeper arenas of discovery than the art world generally knew how to handle at the time. By evoking their relationship within the necessary contexts of both the AIDS outbreak (which ultimately killed them both in the late ’80s) and the spawning of the NYC punk rock scene (Patti Smith, a friend of both men, is consistently illuminating here), Black White + Grey extends its ode to art-as-life into the relevance of the here and now.
- Arthouse Films
- 77 min
- James Crump
- James Crump
- Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henry Geldzahler, Joan Juliet Buck, Eugenia Parry, Truman Capote, Dick Cavett, Dominick Dunne, Patti Smith
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: