The Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, the John Hay Library and the Rhode Island Black Film Festival partnered to host a screening Tuesday of the documentary “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask” made by filmmaker Frederick Lewis ’83.
The documentary follows Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first internationally recognized African American poets and writers, according to a Sept. 13 Today@Brown announcement. Dunbar is most famous for a line from his poem “Sympathy” — “I know why the caged bird sings” — which was used as the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, as well as for his poem, “We Wear the Mask,” the announcement continued.
After the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with Lewis, a professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University.
The event opened with remarks from Sylvia Carey-Butler, vice president for institutional equity and diversity, who said she first saw the documentary at the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island. She was “immersed and mesmerized” by the retelling of Dunbar’s life “through 21st century eyes.”
Lewis said that he was invited to speak at the University by Carey-Butler and Amanda Strauss, associate University librarian for special collections and director of the John Hay Library.
The screening was the first event hosted by the Hay this semester, Strauss said.
Lewis said he began working on the documentary because of two colleagues at Ohio University and became interested in the subject after encountering Dunbar’s work during his English studies. “The more I studied (for the film), the deeper I dug,” he said.
Lewis worked on the documentary — which contains over 500 still images, including two from the Hay’s collections — for around 10 years.
The documentary discusses the life of Dunbar from his childhood in Dayton, Ohio to his career through poems such as “A Negro Love Song” and his novel “Folks from Dixie.”
According to the documentary, “Folks from Dixie” was one of the first novels depicting the antebellum South in which slavery was not shown in a romantic lens.
During the question-and-answer session, Lewis revealed that working on the documentary over the course of a decade revealed his own endurance as a filmmaker. As he got to know the life of Dunbar, he wanted to add on to the film to provide context to the poet’s life, he said.
After his visit to Brown, Lewis hopes to screen the documentary at other schools.