This is a rewarding documentary with an approach that takes the genre in surprisingly unique directions.
Making its world premiere at SXSW 2023, Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell’s This World Is Not My Own tells the intriguing story of outsider artist Nellie Mae Rowe. Mixing 3D animation with in-person interviews, it’s an effective way to tell such an intriguing tale.
Claiming her birthday as July 4, 1900, Rowe lived in poverty during the Jim Crow era. For most of her life, her existence was typical of an African American of the time. Working the farm and serving as a domestic, the twice-widowed Georgian decided to let the artistic sensibilities that were always inside her shine through.
Spotlight on Outsider Art
And shine they did. She created paintings, drawings and chewing-gum sculptures that seemed haphazard at times but always had an underlying theme: the story of her life. Her home, which she dubbed “the Playhouse,” became a museum for her art. She encouraged people to come in and explore. The art even extended outside as she bedecked the trees with it. When some ignorant drivers-by hurl beer bottles at her, she calmly picks one up and adds it to the tree collection.
She captures the attention of Judith Alexander, a fellow Georgian and a gallery owner who became an ardent supporter. Though Alexander was the daughter of a prominent lawyer who fervently fought against desegregation, she forged an unusual bond with Rowe, selling her work and even getting her a show in Manhattan.
The filmmakers’ research is meticulous. Relatives of both were located and provide their “living history” remembrances of them. The film also goes to unexpected places that nevertheless don’t ever feel too far afield. Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was convicted of the rape of a teenager, was represented by Alexander’s father, who ironically had joined an anti-Black militia just a few years before.
And William Conley, an amateur historian, goes through an abandoned cemetery in search of anybody connected to Rowe. Most of the headstones have sunk into the mulchy ground. And there’s the story of Thunderbolt Patterson, a wrestler whose television appearances amused Rowe to no end. It was a reminder of how underrepresented an African American was at the time.
In New York, Rowe didn’t understand all the to-do over her art. She didn’t think there was anything special about it. It’s just what she loved to do.
The animated sequences by Kaktus Film are outstanding, recreating the Playhouse and these women. The voice work by Uzo Aduba and Amy Warren bring the characters to life. There’s even some rare uncovered footage of the real people as well.
In an ironic coda, toward the end of her life, Rowe received a request from Nancy Reagan to design the White House Christmas card. She said, “Ain’t no poor folks gonna see that Christmas card? Ain’t no Black folks gonna see that Christmas card? Then I ain’t gonna do it.”
This World Is Not My Own is making its Georgia premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on Apr. 25 and its international premiere at Hot Docs on Apr. 29.
Feature photo: The animated version of Nellie Mae Rowe, voiced by Uzo Aduba, in This World is Not My Own | Credit: Cinematography by Petter Ringbom, Character Design by Kaktus Film.