Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2015)

Khalik Allah's 60-minute documentary Field Niggas has more in common with street photography, of which it is an extension, with urban poetry, and with ethnographic participant-observation research, than with most conventional documentary film-making. The word "documentary" is a fair one - Allah has said that "Photography to me is a form of documentation" - but could set up the wrong expectation. This is not like other films you've seen.

Allah (above) is a young artist, in his late 20s when this film was shot, who is clearly bursting with passionate energy. He "pitched his tent" at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem - an area that does not, to put it mildly, have the best reputation - at night-time during the summer of 2014. He and his sound man Josh Furey captured image and audio separately, and they are used that way in the film, which could put off some viewers puzzled by the non-synchronization. Better to look at it as having two overlapping experiences simultaneously, I think.

The denizens of this corner of New York City are mostly down on their luck - homeless, drifters, addicts, mentally ill, ex-cons. Allah won their trust by being completely non-judgmental and winningly relatable. This becomes more apparent as you watch because Allah becomes more of a presence (very deliberately) as the film progresses - you begin to see his reflection in glass, you start to be aware of his voice, and by the time the movie is over, it has become an interlocutory piece instead of just a Dziga Vertov-style "camera eye" exercise.

So, although a positive review at the Hollywood Reporter guessed that Field Niggas might work just as well as an installation, I think it gains from being viewed as a film. The subject comes into focus, Allah and his philosophy come into focus. And make no mistake, this is a deeply philosophical film. Allah has referred to the example of Christ (as an ethical philosopher rather than as the "son of God," I think) as showing that one needs to go commune with the people that polite society shuns. In part, because they are you - ultimately, there is no differentiation.

You gotta see yourself in every single brother in the world. Because that’s the understanding that everything is connected in the universe. It’s not one thing that’s disconnected from the next thing, everything is connected, especially us as humans, through the mind. We’re indebted to one another. 

That is from a print interview, but Allah says very similar words in the film. It has a Buddhist feeling, of course, as well as a clear similarity to Spinoza and Schopenhauer, and is a moving and persuasive statement. After I watched the film, I looked up my own class notes on Schopenhauer - I teach the history of philosophy - and found the passage that Allah's testimony reminded me of: "Other people are us."

Some might wonder why, in the hyper-sensitive environment we find ourselves in these days, for good reasons and bad, Allah would take the risk of using an "offensive" word in his title. Well, for one thing, he's clearly not afraid of words! But the "house nigga" / "field nigga" dichotomy, memorably evoked by Malcolm X in his speech "Message to the Grassroots," is core to Allah's analysis. The house nigga is a step above the field nigga, and can look down upon him; everybody can look down upon him. From a small-c christian ethical perspective, this makes the field nigga especially crucial to commune with and to listen to. And the people at the corner of Lexington and 125th are clearly field niggas in that sense: They are the avoided.

[The use of the terminology] has a historical implication, but it was more an aesthetic, artistic decision.Like you notice, I’m saying “field niggas,” but I’m not talking shit about “house niggas.” In the film, you don’t hear me coming at Barack Obama or Colin Powell or like any politician, or any black person. I’m not really doing that. What I intended was “field niggas,” meaning those who are in the back, those who are in the field who never get to voice their opinion. Like, just to give them the microphone.

Allah has said "I'm definitely a certified field nigga," and that is true in two senses: He has to become one with his subjects from an aesthetic as well as an ethical point of view in order to make an honest and engaging film, and as a good ethnographer he has to spend as much time as possible "in the field."

The positioning of the police in Field Niggas is exceptionally interesting. Allah says to his subjects that he loves and identifies with the police, too - a monist ethics can't pick and choose. But practically speaking, he can't do ethnography with street corner citizens AND the police at one and the same time. So although the police are seen constantly throughout the film, they are seen from the outside, a little scarily, and are not given a voice. This is consistent with keeping to the main subjects' POV. But the film is an implicit invitation to another filmmaker to do thou likewise for the police on this corner, and that would definitely make a compelling film too. 

There is a surprisingly rich body of material about Allah's work online; I think he is an exceedingly skilled self-promoter, and I say that with admiration. He wants people to see his film, which is currently on the festival circuit. I hope a DVD or Blu-ray will be made available; Allah's color photography is exquisite and deserves to be seen under the best possible technical conditions.

Filmmaker/Photographer Khalik Allah Captures Harlem Nighttime Street Life in 'Field Niggas' (Preview)

I recommend watching the five-minute preview video at this link, in which Allah speaks about his intentions in making Field Niggas.

Khalik Allah's 'Field Niggas' gleans wisdom from the kind of people Bloomberg, SRB, and others don't think have any

Great interview with Allah at this link.

Khalik Allah’s Movie Captures Harlem Faces and Voices by Moonlight



...that’s the thesis of the whole film. That there’s nothing to fear. I could come into this neighborhood, which is looked upon as dangerous, even disgusting, at night and show beauty. And in fact feel that in my heart and say that to them, too.

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