Thomas G. Miller took up filmmaking after a respiratory condition ended his career as a doctor. He no doubt found inspiration in the life of Reverend Albert Wagner, who lived a dead-end life of drinking and womanizing until, at age 50, he took up painting. Wagner’s raw portraits of black life in the slums were eventually celebrated by the art establishment, leading to complex social and racial dynamics in the meaning and value of his work.
How successful was Miller in tackling these complex issues in his first feature? Quite successful, three critics seem to concur:
One Bad Cat brings fresh light to the artist profile not only through his choice of subject, but also by his direct confrontation with the discomforting nature of Mr. Wagner’s work and the cultural complexities entailed when a poor black naïf is celebrated and collected by well-to-do whites.
– Nathan Lee, The New York Times
Thomas G. Miller… explores a taboo subject (racial divides in the viewing and collecting of art) with irresolvable complexity. Collectors (mostly white, often women) found [Wagner] 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.
– Jim Ridley, The Village Voice
The power and authenticity of Wagner’s creations are undeniable, but the film calls into question their sociopolitical implications. Many scholars and critics play armchair psychoanalyst in their attempts to decode Wagner’s work. Some think he painted the black experience with too broad a brush, while others wonder whether a nonblack audience can ever frame Wagner’s work in proper context. Does his art project internal racism? Do his “white groupies” succumb to liberal guilt? Can commerce and true art ever coexist? Mr. Miller attempts to address each of these questions in One Bad Cat.
– Martin Tsai, The New York Sun
Now it’s your turn to judge.