Film Celebrates Blackness, Authenticity and the Glory of Photography

2014 927 lens st(Image: New Frontier Film)

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Last fall, I was thankful for Facebook. And I posted those feelings, without irony or jest, for all my friends to see. I was thankful for the images, every year, of black folk in a kind of fellowship. Tables set for 5, 10, 20 and more. Elegant place settings, breakfronts piled with pies, cakes and cobblers. And the people. Brown faces laughing, smiling, even full of food, looking back at me as I scrolled through. These images warm me each year the weather turns past crisp. But they are not the only ones.

As I write this, my newsfeed is full. There are children there, some in uniforms, others in shorts and T-shirts, a few with sharp, first-day gear. All of them smile at me. It is their first day of school – all of them – and I can see their parents even though they are rarely in these photos. Friends of mine are clicking with anticipatory joy, and, even though they are out of each shot, I see them in their children’s eyes. In the obvious pride that shores up these beautiful brown children and prepares them to learn. Come summer, many of these children will reappear, in graduation and stepping-up photos. They will look sharp, again, and taller.

Through the summer, I will watch them grow even browner, even bigger, as they show up in beach photos, camping photos, backyard pool photos, trips to Grandma’s photos, summer photos.

The steady rotation of beautiful black people that rolls all year offers a stunning counter-narrative to the images and words that still dominate the mainstream American discourse on our lives. Too often, my people are victims, bodies mangled by police bullets, or by vigilante bullets, but always by a dispossession that renders them subhuman prey. Too often, my people are perpetrators, assaulting the people they are supposed to love most on grainy video that replays, over and over again, on the 24-hour newsfeed that reaches millions more than my friends’ posts ever could.

African Americans have always shot each other, but not with bullets. With cameras aimed at kin, we have captured our ordinary selves, our everyday selves, our true selves. In our own images, we have been glorious. Through a Lens Darkly, an independent film that examines the history of black photography, celebrates this glory.

Inspired by contemporary photographer Deborah Willis’ book, Reflections in Black: African America Photographers from 1840 – Present, this rich film provides power to the front lines, to help fuel the work of black folk engaged in what director Thomas Allen Harris calls the “war of images within the American family album.” But it does so much more than this. All viewers will learn more – and see more – about what it means to be American by watching this film.

Sojourner Truth, the African-American suffragist, abolitionist and speaker who famously delivered her extemporaneous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, was also what historian and artist Nell Irvin Painter calls the “first black woman to use photography to craft her photographic image.” Not only did she self-fashion images projecting “self-possession and great respectability,” a triumph for this former slave, but she also sold those images to help support herself in freedom.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that to truly liberate black folk, the activist political struggle for freedom was insufficient. According to historian Richard J Powell, Douglass recognized that there was a “visual struggle afoot as well.” There are over 150 portraits of Douglass that, along with photos of everyday black folk in the late 19th century, prove that photography enabled former slaves to reconstruct themselves as women, children and men.

Through a Lens Darkley moves through time and into the post-Reconstruction period, when fictional, derogatory images of African Americans were frequently used to entertain white folks – and criminalize black men. In this context, every image taken of African Americans by African-American photographers acts as a shield to preserve the black body and protect the authentic soul force of the people.

While white Americans sold photographs of lynched black bodies as postcards and souvenirs, Mamie Till used photographs of her son Emmett’s open coffin to show the world what had been done to her lynched child. No wonder that modern-day black photographers, steeped in this peculiar history – and in the tradition of excellence established by their photographic forebears and honored by their contemporaries – so often create work that can most accurately be described as afro-surreal.

Filmmaker Harris never forgets that all photographers, from amateur family members clicking at our family reunions, to professionals who click to eat, are, in fact, artists. He identifies and often features 20th and 21st century icons who have gained international reputations through their work with the photographic image, including Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Roy DeCarava and Jamel Shabazz. They have captured truths, and even the Truth. This award-winning film reflects an authentic America – good, bad, ugly, beautiful – that each American should see.

The film will play on Independent Lens on February 15, 2015, and the DVD will be available on February 17. There is a theatrical run this month and next. Check this guide for a theater near you.

Hudson, NY

Time & Space LTD

September 25 – October 5, 2014

Milwaukee, WI

Milwaukee Film Festival

September 25 – October 9, 2014

Miami Beach, FL

Miami Beach Cinematheque

October 3 – 4, 8 & 11 – 12, 2014

Columbus, OH

Wexner Center for the Arts

October 14, 2014

Detroit, MI

Detroit Film Theatre

October 16, 2014

New Orleans, LA

New Orleans Film Festival

October 16 – 23, 2014

Warwick, Bermuda

Bermuda Docs

October 19, 2014

Atlanta, GA

Plaza Atlanta Theatre

October 24 – 30, 2014

Memphis, TN

Indie Memphis Film Festival

November 1, 2014

San Francisco, CA

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

November 6 & 9, 2014

St. Louis, MO

St. Louis Film Festival

November 13 – 23, 2014

Los Angeles, CA

Laemmle Theatres

Opens November 14, 2014

Cleveland, OH

Cleveland Museum of Art

November 19, 2014

Baltimore, MD

Creative Alliance

November 20, 2014

Seattle, WA

Northwest Film Forum

November 21 – 26, 2014

Link for more images.