One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story


A bowling ball’s black kitty face busting out of a white bag: Does this beguilingly simple sculpture evoke transcendence—a message that the least among us can define his own destiny—or unconsciously expose a psyche-deep racial inferiority complex? In profiling the late African-American outsider artist Reverend Albert Wagner, who picked up a brush at age 50 and began to atone obsessively for past sins, filmmaker Thomas G. Miller answers “maybe” to both in this compellingly ambivalent portrait, which explores a taboo subject (racial divides in the viewing and collecting of art) with irresolvable complexity. An art dealer’s dream—i.e., a charismatic Howard Finster–like figure with a colorful story, bankable “authenticity,” and lots of product—Wagner transformed his Cleveland home into a combination shrine, studio, and chapel, painting his crude visions of childhood cotton-picking, pendulum-breasted women, religious prophecy, and racist strife onto whatever scraps he could find. Collectors (mostly white, often women) found him courtly and lovable, even as they trooped home with lynching scenes that somehow didn’t make it over the sofa. Family and former lovers either revered him or found his conversion too-little-too-late to forgive past offenses—such as molesting the daughter of a woman he was living with. Miller neither defends or apologizes: His remarkably candid footage (extending all the way to Wagner’s deathbed and beyond) and interviews leave the man’s sincerity (and his collectors’) as open to scrutiny as his art.