dir: Thomas Allen Harris, 2015
Welcome back from Valentine’s Day Weekend/#BlackLoveWeekend/President’s Day Weekend/Get-To Sleep-In-Weekend.
My weekend was lowkey dope. Got to enjoy the sweet sweet glow of the sun and saw a couple movies. I even did my taxes. That’s how happy and relaxed I was.
Anywho: Friday night I ended up at Impact Hub Oakland to peep the local screening of Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People before it’s PBS premiere this week on Independent Lens. The screening was a part of a larger celebration of Coltrane’s work A Love Supreme, which was also pretty cool. But, we’re here to talk about the film. Because there’s a lot to talk about.
Darkly is a lot of things. And it has a lot of things in it. So, bear with me, as I may take you down the rabbit hole a bit. But, if we are to put things in a New York apartment sized nutshell: Darkly is a documentary about the history and birth of photography by black folks, and black photographers themselves.
Director Thomas Allen Harris approaches this central narrative from an increasingly personal point of view. He narrates the film, while intercutting a deep collection of family photos, notable contributors, and hundreds of never-before-filmed photos from various black photographers and the like. If not for anything else, the very presentation of the pure history of this culture and art, and the photos themselves, makes Darkly a treasure. To see black folks evolve and shift from subject to surveyor, object to artist, is a beautiful thing.
In addition, the various artists and historians who are able to retell and contextualize the history of how these photos and people came to be is amazing.
That being said, there are several things I’d like to delve into and take Darkly to task for.
If the film had maintained itself as just a broad historical documentary, it would have been truly succinct. Sadly, Harris’ narration and insertion of personal narrative often derails the films usually strong focus on the history and people. While there’s nothing wrong with becoming personally invested in a film (an act which is almost unavoidable,) there is something about Harris’ constant re-focusing on his own relationship to the history that is informative and emotional at it’s best and cinematically questionable at worst.
Much of this comes from several things.
The first is his (possibly unintentional, but consistent) bait and switch. It happens several times through the film, but a good example occurs midway. Therein, Harris reminisces on the sexual politics of family and the family photo album. He highlights the erasure of his grandfather’s brother, a cross-dressing man who went by the name “Sugar” in Harlem’s gender underground. Harris suggests that his grandfather’s disdain for his brother informed this erasure from the family history. On the surface, this focus makes sense, as the film has at this point turned it’s view to New York and the nascent stronghold of black photographers there in the early 1900’s.
However, Harris dives quite deep into this subset of the narrative, revealing that Sugar was found dead under suspicious circumstances. In the aftermath of this revelation, Harris asks: “Who was Sugar?” A similar question is posited when Harris juxtaposes this with the quietly open life of his assumed lesbian great-aunt.
The problem is not the questions themselves.
Rather, it’s the fact that this is a repeated convention throughout the film. Harris often detours into a personal narrative in the midst of the grander train of thought that Darkly builds, asking things that could easily be thesis statements for films of their own. This is due in part to the intriguing and important nature of these moments: the erasure of a nonconforming family member, the unspoken existence of another, the departure and mystery of an absentee father, etc. If anything, the viewer is brought in by Harris dreamy narration and almost unbothered questioning.
The problem however is that these things are never sufficiently explored. The soul of the film is often caught in this vice, fluctuating between personal narrative and historical documentation. At every pivotal moment in the film, Harris inevitably has to throw his personal connection into it. Again, this is not anything novel. But, within a film that has so much ground to cover within a 90 minute runtime, it often obfuscates it’s intentions.
This confusion is doubled by a strange selection of editing and revelation in the final moments of the film.
Deborah Willis is introduced early in the film as an authoritative voice, who we hear from throughout. So much so, that she is as familiar to us as Harris himself. However, it is not explicitly revealed until the end of the film that is was she who wrote the seminal and definitive bible on the history of black photography in the Americas. I can understand how Harris wanted to hammer home her importance in these final moments. But it felt…late.
If anything, we should’ve known how important Willis was to the history from the jump. Instead we get a slight soundbite about her journey to collect these stories for the past 35 years. While suggestion is cute and cool, I think that given the subject matter, and just the sheer weight of the film itself, Willis’ importance should have been upfront and center. Not as a matter of brown-nosing, but as an act of explicit deference to this woman and her work. In addition, it would have clearly guided the viewer’s trust and understanding of how and why Willis is so deeply qualified to speak and contribute with such unrivaled authority. In my opinion, she deserved that much, if not more.
That’s why part of me feels as though Darkly is both an important film, but also something an insider film. It takes for granted the importance of identifying the importance of who is talking to us, because it seems to assume that we already kinda know who these folks are.
There are many folks who are simply given time to speak, without explicit clarification as to how and why they are important to this discussion. What’s more, there is no consistent highlighting of these contributor’s works that, possibly in their own words, describes what their focus is and how they are qualified to speak. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about checking people’s qualifications. Rather, it’s about making sure that the lay(wo)man understands why these people have been chosen to bring you this powerful history. It’s about properly contextualizing and honoring these artists and historians.
Now, I know I’ve ragged on this a bit. But I do this out of love, not malice. I truthfully, honestly, enjoyed this film. It opened my eyes and mind to so much history and work that I may not have known of otherwise. So much so that I intend on seeing the film again so I can take notes and follow up.
So, all that being said: go watch this film. It is filled to the brim with a history that is often taken for granted and will effectively broaden your knowledge of American history, not just Black history.
Through A Lens Darkly is playing on Monday nights on PBS. Check your local PBS stations for listings.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope