'Selma's Bradford Young On The Politics Of Lensing Black Films

Bradford Young’s work on Ava DuVernay’s civil rights biopic Selma and JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year landed him on Hollywood’s radar this Oscar season, but it also illuminates the diversity lacking year after year within the film industry and the Academy that represents it. Critics and DuVernay have praised Young’s aptitude for lensing African-American faces onscreen as beautifully as he does in Selma, Most Violent YearSelma postera film about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s private and public struggles to turn the tide of the voting rights movement. “I’m never satisfied with the way I see my people photographed in movies,” Young confessed to me over the phone before the holidays. “I think it comes from a lack of consciousness – if you grew up in a community where you don’t know black people, I wouldn’t suspect you would photograph them in a concerned way.”

Few working cinematographers today trained like Young, who lives in Washington D.C. and spent years honing his photographic skills on subjects of color. Selma Bradford Young“I went to a majority black elementary school, a majority black high school, I moved to Chicago when I was 15 and lived on the Southside in a majority black community,” he said. “All of the artists that my grandparents collected were black artists. All of the books on my grandparents’ shelf, my father’s shelf, my mother’s shelf, were about black people. My world, until I got to D.C., was really about blackness.”

At Howard University, Young studied under Haile Gerima and soaked up the work of DPs who came before him. “Ernest Dickerson, who was Spike Lee’s preferred cinematographer, went to Howard,” he said. “Arthur Jafa, who was Spike’s cinematographer on Crooklyn and was Julie Dash’s cinematographer on Daughters Of The Dust, went to Howard. Malik Sayeed, the incredible, talented, gifted god of lighting black folk, went to Howard as well. It was a treasure chest of references for me to imitate, mimic, and pay homage to. My training was geared toward exposing my community — this particular community.”

Mother of George Those watching the indie scene have seen Young on the rise in recent years. He won the Sundance cinematography prize for Dee Rees’ Pariah in 2011, the same year he shot fellow Sundance class of 2011 entry Restless City for Andrew Dosunmu. In 2012 he teamed with DuVernay on her Sundance-winning drama Middle Of Nowhere, which won the future Selma helmer top directing honors. Last year Young won the Sundance cinematography prize again for lensing Dosunmu’s Mother Of George and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

“I have a deep concern about humanity, period,” Young said. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints spoke to me because those are the grandchildren in time and spirit of all those amazing white folk during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl who were subversive against Jim Crow. They were like, we’re going to throw down our own ignorance so we can all share the plow together. That for me is a glorious golden age in American history because it was the first time Americans were really invested in socialism, and I saw that in that script. There was no room for fascism and racism when you couldn’t eat.”

Pariah“Something like Selma, or Mother Of George, or Pariah — I know those people very well,” said Young. “They’re my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. When I see Alike or Martin Luther King, I see my family. I love my family, so I wouldn’t photograph them any differently. And that’s a universal principle, whether you’re a white cinematographer or a Southeast Asian cinematographer. When you care about your people you’re going to do right by them, and that doesn’t have any technical boundaries.”

If nominated for an Oscar on January 15, the 37-year-old Louisville native will become only the second black cinematographer in history to earn an Academy Award nom. (Remi Adefarasin was the first with his nod for 1998’s Elizabeth.) It wouldn’t just be a historic moment for Young, the youngest contender in recent years in his field. DuVernay is the first black female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director for Selma and the film is eyeing multiple categories at the Oscars.

Timing has been prescient for Selma, which Paramount released on Christmas on the heels of Ferguson and at the tail end of a year of unprecedented social action and outrage over race politics in America.

Selma MLK speech“I don’t want to make this overtly political, but I think it is overtly political, because I think in general Americans don’t know their history,” said Young. “And when you don’t know your history, you can’t humanize people that you subjected to mass social disenfranchisement, police brutality, slavery, sexism, xenophobia. When you’re not dealing with that as part of your history, you have no concern or care to represent those people in mass media in a real conscious way. My pedagogy around filmmaking is that it’s a medium that can raise the stakes for all of humanity.”

“Someone asked Ava at a Q&A, ‘Is this film timely?’ ” he continued. “She said, ‘It’s always going to be timely, because times haven’t changed for us.’ When you think about it that way it’s not about being timely, it’s just highlighting our continuous struggle to be human beings in the world.”

  1. “My pedagogy around filmmaking is that it’s a medium that can raise the stakes for all of humanity.”

    So how about we start by dropping the racial qualifiers? “Black film” “My people” “Black artists” As a white male, I’d never refer to a movie as a “white film” by “white artists.” It would sound like I am demanding special recognition. It would sound very racist. I don’t care who makes the films I enjoy, white or black, male or female. You made a film about a period of time in our history, all of our history, as a nation.

    “My world… was really about blackness.”

    And there’s the issue. My world wasn’t about whiteness. My teens years and later were in a very racial mixed family. And the only people who ever seemed to have any problems were the ones constantly defining things as “black community” or “the white man.” Everyone else was accepting, tolerant, and didn’t even see the racial differences. We were family. We were neighbors.

    So maybe, just maybe, if we stop labeling everything with racial qualifiers, everyone will stop seeing race first. So there won’t need to be a Selma or a Ferguson in the future.

    1. In a perfect world, Michael, you may (or may not) have a point. Labeling isn’t the problem any more than not labeling would eradicate the problem. The problem is when those labels are used to subjugate, differentiate and segregate.

      Ethnic groups are going to have their own histories and their own experiences and their own perspectives from which to tell a story. Calling something a “black film” or an “Asian film” or a “Latino film” speaks to that difference of experience that should be appreciate and understood as such. And for the people of those groups, it should provide a sense of identity and hopefully pride in seeing themselves and their stories portrayed on screen (especially if it’s done right).

      So your other point about “white” this and “white” that is irrelevant because everything in Hollywood defaults to white because Hollywood is run by whites and most of them probably haven’t been exposed to diversity enough to be conscious of it outside of percentages and quotas. Until that changes (which it won’t), then the labeling is necessary — but not for the purposes of division.

    2. @Michael

      I totally agree with you. As a cinematographer I’m insulted by ths type of bullshit. When a black DP professes to be the only one to understand how to light a person of color…..I say bullshit. I also would say to him……get the hell off of your sanctimonious pedestal and think about what you’re saying. By contrast, if that’s the case – then black DP’s have no business lighting a white film or TV show.

      I’m pretty sure that most reasonable people would agree that both theories are a crock of racist shit. “The white community”, “the white man”, “my world….was really about whiteness”. Turning it around sounds pretty ignorant to me. But hey, if race matters in lighting a fucking film or TV show – then blacks have no business lighting “white” shows or films. No one can have it both ways…..sounds stupid, right?

      From my experience (39 years lighting network TV shows) lighting a show is about understanding LIGHTING, not race. This race baiting bullshit has got to stop. We continue to go backwards…it’s truly not helpful to anyon. It seems as if every step forward is followed by two steps backwards.

      1. Just curious… out of your 39 years of lighting, were you ever discrimnated against or turned for a job? How many productions did you work that featured anyone of color in-front of or behind the camera? Were you EVER nominated for anything for your work? Having trouble with these questions? Then you should probably sit back… give this young man a hand and stop questioning his intellegence. I guarntee you he’s worked HARDER than you ever will just get to where he’s at in his short career.

        1. @The Truth

          So……you think that I’ve just floated through my 39 years having everything handed to me? Guess what, idiot, I’M A WOMAN. Yes, a woman. Yet in my entire career I’ve never cried and whined that our male dominated industry has discriminated against me. I’ve just learned all I could, listened to my mentors, and done my job with excellence as my motivation. No one’s patted me on the back an said, “good job – for a white girl”. Believe me, regardless of ‘color’, what’s between your legs matters more than what’s between your ears — so, keep your mouth to yourself. You don’t know me, or what I’ve been through. BTW, behind the camera — WOMEN are the silent minority, but, we don’t run around crying about what a tough road it’s been. “Give this young man a hand….”. Give me a fucking break.

          Look at yourself and your ASSumption is that I’m a ‘white GUY’. Funny how our own personal bias works – isn’t it.

          1. Are you a white women? Stop getting upset over Bradford’s truth. And if you feel you cannot relate to what he is saying at all as a woman then my dear you have sadly not been paying attention within your field or life! There is very much a way of coloring people of color and coloring white people well is taught in school and getting jobs in film is quite difficult [not impossible] but the climb will be that much harder. That my dear woman is the facts of life.

          2. This is horrible, one would think after 39 years a white woman would realize the ways in which racial discrimination permeates the film industry. I mean photography and film, the technology of filmmaking was created with white skin as the default, the same happened with the creation of video and then digital, all defaulting to white skin.
            His point is extremely relevant and true and real, shooting black skin is different from shooting white skin and you have to be very conscious of it, especial when the industry, right down to the actual technology and tools used to shoot, are optimized for white skin. If you can’t see his point you should go back to school. It makes me so freaking sad that someone could work in the film industry for almost 40 years and absolutely refuse to see the realities of it.

      2. Hey I understand your point. However, I think you might be taking things out of context. I personally feel that Bradford Young mentioned the “Blackness” of his world to show why he cares so much about how Black people are depicted in films. NOT because he’s racist or feels like he is the only Cinematographer that should be allowed to film Black people (That would be CRAZY!). He clearly cares about equality, so I don’t think that was his point. And I’m not saying that I don’t agree that it comes down to LIGHTING— For example, I love the movie “42”, and the DP was Don Burgess – He’s not Black, and if you watch that film, you will see how beautiful is work is and how well he captures Black people. NOT EVERY FILM With BLACK PEOPLE DOES THAT. And I think that is what Young was referring to.

      3. But White makeup artists and hair stylists have been observed, albeit by Black and Asian models, as not being able to accommodate their different skin tones and hair textures, especially if their expertise have been built on predominantly white clients. The performers who end up wearing the work of other departments on their own bodies, have discussed the more nuanced shading, gradient, care and even precise application of products for the final effects, as different between from others experienced with clients of different ethnicities. And we all know lighting is a tool that has the power to enhance subtle emotional power, to even differentiate between a star player from extras within the same ethnicity. Artists and artisans of each department may not be political themselves, but the history of racial dynamics that were brought into movie industry history, don’t disappear overnight.

      4. Really. Black people know White people as we had to as it’s necessary to succeed. White people don’t know Blacks, they didn’t need to.
        That makes the case for Brad Young. He is universal. Sorry, you are collateral damage in racism. RACISM MADE Blacks Stronger. NFL, NBA. IT ALSO MADE BLACKS WISER. Brad Young.

    3. @Michael, so you’re saying if Martin Luther King, Jr., never mentioned or discussed the topic of race, racial tensions in this country would have been relieved sooner?

    4. You may have come from a family where there were people of mixed backgrounds but you didn’t the life of a non-white person in America. You obviously have no idea what it is like to be black person.

      Instead of trying to police and suppress others, why not actually listen to what someone has to say and learn something? Why not pick up a book?

      It’s sad that you can’t understand that others have a perspective outside your own.

        1. I was waiting for the “get over it” person to show up. They always do. By the way, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that everyone who had a problem with what Mr. Bradford had to say, was not a person of color. Interesting. It seems like his words made some of them very uncomfortable. I guess you can’t mention “blackness” or black people, or lighting black skin, without upsetting a few white people. Keep doing what you’re doing, Mr. Bradford. It’s obviously working.

          1. @Blu

            Although I’m not the type of person who would say something like, ‘get over it’, I will say this….it’s about time that ALL people stop using color as a reason to degrade others. And Blu, blacks don’t get a pass on this. Ignorance is ignorance. Period. So, how would you like it if someone said — ‘I guess a few blacks can’t get shot by white cops without upsetting a few black people’? Your comment was just THAT ignorant and biased.

            Maybe I should say get over it. But, I won’t. I’ll just say a DP doesn’t need to be black to light black people. And, a DP doesn’t need to be white to light white people. How about Asians? Or, Armenians? Or gosh, a dark skinned Brazilian? Or, a light skinned Mexican? Now, some Asians are lighter than others….who gets to light them? Light skinned Asians? This is deep. Maybe there’s an Asian university that teaches Asian DP’s how to light Asians. Or, a Peruvian College teaching Peruvians to light Peruvians?

            BTW, I’m not just speaking out of my ass. I’ve seen a screening of Selma. The lighting was inconsistent, flat in some scenes, dull in others. It’s obvious that he’s inexperienced and it shows. Too much shading and an obvious lack of warmth when needed. To hire someone because he has lived in a black world surrounded by “blackness”, and use that as a qualifier, is not only ignorant but also racist.

          2. So, Blu, with all due respect – did you read what Mary wrote? Any reasonable white person would be very offended. I can’t even imagine the comments if a white person said those exact words but replaced ‘black’ with ‘white’. It’s just getting absolutely ridiculous in this country. Given this logic, Blu and Mary, you have no idea what it is like to be a white person. Now, doesn’t that sound stupid? People are people…perhaps we are becoming more segregated than most would like to admit. I fear that as this becomes more apparent the strides that have been fought for will be lost.

            Think of this – our next president is going to be more conservative than we’ve seen in a long time. That scares the hell out of me. But, this craziness that’s going on, this racial arrogance, the black vs white bullshit…..well, I hate to say it but, black Americans will lose the battle because stereotypes still overpower all else.

            God save us all.

  2. Do good lighting, don’t take forever and kill ’em with kindness. That’s the secret to being a working DP.

      1. And don’t rush your electrical crew when you decide to change out a large lamp mounted on a condor while the director is waiting. Accidents might happen.

      2. Not even close to exactly 5k. It’s easy to get upset and freak out of Bradford’s statements but not easy to look at the history of film

        1. Jaquay — LMAO. You have no idea who I am, what I’ve done, or what you’re even saying. I know my history, my family has been a huge part of the film industry since day one. One might say that I am a ‘child’ of Hollywood. Someday when you become enlightened, you’ll understand. Until then, keep dreaming and zip your lip.

  3. I wouldn’t brag about the fact my family has been a huge part of The film industry from day one. If that is the case then they are part of the problem in an industry that is nowhere near as diverse as the public it is supposed to entertain, inform and reflect.

    Re: Get Over

    We can get over it when 12 Year old boys don’t get killed don’t get killed by police because they have. BB gun in their hands, or black you men don’t get killed in Walmart when holding a toy gun that is sold AT WALMART or when the suites at the Hollywood studios and at the major talent agencies better reflect the population of our United States of America

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