‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin

(Jaap Buitendijk/ ) - Chiwetel Ejiofor as \

(Jaap Buitendijk/ ) - Chiwetel Ejiofor as \"Solomon Northup\" in Steve McQueens's “12 Years a Slave.”

In one of the first scenes of early Oscar favorite “12 Years a Slave,” the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is seen at night, sleeping alongside a fellow enslaved servant. Their faces are barely illuminated against the velvety black background, but the subtle differences in their complexions — his a burnished mahogany, hers bearing a lighter, more yellow cast — are clearly defined.

Mother of George,” which like “12 Years a Slave” opens on Friday, takes place in modern-day Brooklyn, not the candlelit world of 19th-century Louisiana. But, like “12 Years a Slave,” its black stars and supporting players are exquisitely lit, their blue-black skin tones sharply contrasting with the African textiles they wear to create a vibrant tableau of textures and hues.

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“Mother of George” and “12 Years a Slave” are just the most recent in a remarkable run of films this year by and about African Americans, films that range in genre from the urban realism of “Fruitvale Station” and light romantic comedy of “Baggage Claim" to the high-gloss historic drama of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the evocatively gritty pot comedy “Newlyweeds.” The diversity of these films isn’t reflected just in their stories and characters, but in the wide range of skin tones they represent, from the deepest ebonies to the creamiest caramels.

The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics — and the advent of digital filmmaking. For the first hundred years of cinema, when images were captured on celluloid and processed photochemically, disregard for black skin and its subtle shadings was inscribed in the technology itself, from how film-stock emulsions and light meters were calibrated, to the models used as standards for adjusting color and tone.

That embedded racism extended into the aesthetics of the medium itself, which from its very beginnings was predicated on the denigration and erasure of the black body. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation” — in which white actors wearing blackface depicted Reconstruction-era blacks as wild-eyed rapists and corrupt politicians — the technology and grammar of cinema and photography have been centered on the unspoken assumption that their rightful subjects would be white.

The result was that, if black people were visible at all, their images would often be painfully caricatured (see Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind”) or otherwise distorted, either ashy and washed-out or featureless points of contrast within the frame. As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

MontréAza Missouri, an assistant professor in film at Howard University, recalls being told by one of her instructors in London that “if you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light. It was never an issue of questioning the technology.” In her classes at Howard, Missouri says, “I talk to my students about the idea that the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral.”

Missouri reminds her students that the sensors used in light meters have been calibrated for white skin; rather than resorting to the offensive Vaseline solution, they need to manage the built-in bias of their instruments, in this case opening their cameras’ apertures one or two stops to allow more light through the lens. Filmmakers working with celluloid also need to take into account that most American film stocks weren’t manufactured with a sensitive enough dynamic range to capture a variety of dark skin tones. Even the female models whose images are used as reference points for color balance and tonal density during film processing — commonly called “China Girls” — were, until the mid-1990s, historically white.

In the face of such technological chauvinism, filmmakers have been forced to come up with workarounds, including those lights thrown on Poitier and a variety of gels, scrims and filters. But today, such workarounds have been rendered virtually obsolete by the advent of digital cinematography, which allows filmmakers much more flexibility both in capturing images and manipulating them during post-production.

Cinematographer Anastas Michos recalls filming “Freedomland” with Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson, whose dramatically different complexions presented a challenge when they were in the same shot. “You had Julianne Moore, who has minus pigment in her skin, and Sam, who’s a dark-skinned guy. It was a photographic challenge to bring out the undertones in both of them.”

Michos solved the problem during a phase of post-production called the digital intermediate, during which the film print is digitized, then manipulated and fine-tuned. “You’re now able to isolate specific skin tones in terms of both brightness and color,” says Michos, who also shot “Baggage Claim,” “Jumping the Broom” and “Black Nativity,” due out later this year. “It gives you a little bit more flexibility in terms of how you paint the frame.”

Daniel Patterson, who shot “Newlyweeds” on a digital Red One camera, agrees, noting that on a recent shoot for Spike Lee’s “Da Blood of Jesus,” he was able to photograph black actors of dramatically different skin tones in a nighttime interior scene using just everyday house lamps, thanks to a sophisticated digital camera. “I just changed the wattage of the bulb, used a dimmer, and I didn’t have to use any film lights. That kind of blew me away,” Patterson says. “The camera was able to hold both of them during the scene without any issues.”

The multicultural realities films increasingly reflect go hand in hand with the advent of technology that’s finally able to capture them with accuracy and sensitivity. And on the forefront of this new vanguard is cinematographer and Howard University graduate Bradford Young, the latest in a long line of Howard alums — including Ernest Dickerson, Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed — who throughout the 1990s deployed the means of production to bring new forms of lyricism, stylization and depth to filmed images of African Americans.

At Howard, Young says, “the question of representation was always first and foremost. . . . When bias is built into the negative, how does that affect the way we see people of color on screen? People like Ernest, Malik and A.J. [found] a sweet spot. There’s always an inherent bias sitting over us. We’ve just got to climb through it and survive, and that’s what’s embodied in the cinematography.”

Whether working on film stock for Dee Rees’s “Pariah,” high-definition video for Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” or with digital Red cameras for Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” and “Mother of George,” Young is finding a newly rich visual language, one that’s simultaneously straightforward, soft, stylish and intimately naturalistic. His work with Dosunmu — for which Young won the Sundance cinematography award this year — is especially expressive, with the camera coming in and out of focus and often capturing the actors in moments of stillness, like works of sculpture.

“I was trying to be assertive with the imagery as flamboyant, space-age and assertive as African American textiles have been for 10,000 years,” Young explains, adding that he lit “Mother of George” to accentuate blue skin tones and illuminated scenes from above, to suggest natural sunlight. “It takes us back to Tuaregs and Niger and nomads, because the people in the film are kind of like nomads,” he says. “That’s why the top light is always so cool, and their hands are always stained with something. Because that’s what nomadic people do.”

Solomon Northup is a nomad as well in “12 Years a Slave,” in which he and his fellow laborers — often abused, but shown in all their physical types and tonal subtleties — stand in symbolic rebuke to a cinematic apparatus that habitually ignored or despised them. Like their brethren in “Mother of George” and other denizens of this year’s “black new wave,” these characters are claiming aesthetic space that they’ve long been denied.

That space, at long last, seems endless: Young suggested that his next step with Dosunmu might be photographing a movie in 3-D. Having transformed the black body in a two-dimensional format, he says, “let’s work on the perception of the black body in space. Instead of having depth of field, let’s actually take control of each field.” It’s tempting to imagine that Northup and his peers would agree — literally, metaphorically and, not least of all, cinematically.

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