“The interesting thing about it is that there is no formal cinematography department,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay says. “It’s jaw-dropping that you’ve had so many come out [of Howard] with such distinct styles.”
The floating-camera dolly shot and super-saturated color palette that are trademarks of Spike Lee’s work are the best known among several innovations that Howard-trained cinematographers have contributed to the films they’ve worked on. Early in his career, Lee developed these techniques in close collaboration with a Howard graduate, Ernest Dickerson.
Just as revered among aficionados are Arthur Jafa’s lyrical work on the 1991 period drama “Daughters of the Dust,” the vibrant, edgy visuals Malik Sayeed helped create for the gangster movie “Belly” — and now, the new sense of subtlety and layered surfaces that Young, 35, has introduced to the African American film vernacular.
DuVernay, who enlisted Young to shoot her features “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere,” notes that Howard-trained cinematographers emerge not just with practical knowledge of photochemistry and camera mechanics but an understanding that African American culture “is political, and what we do is important and the way that we see ourselves and the way we’re seen start with the person behind the camera.”
The fact that cinematographers are image-makers both in the cinematic and sociological sense has never been lost on the teachers or students at Howard, which formed its radio, television and film department in the early 1970s and began offering an MFA in film in 1983. Howard is the only historically black college with a graduate film program; the country’s best-known film departments are at New York University, the University of Southern California, the American Film Institute and UCLA, where in the 1970s and 1980s a group of African American filmmakers formed the “L.A. Rebellion.”
It was out of that revolutionary cadre in 1975 that filmmaker Haile Gerima arrived at Howard, where he has since taught writing and directing, and guided film to becoming a force of substance and bold expression.
“The whole philosophical idea of the program is leaving their destiny to them,” Gerima says. “We try to prepare them and keep talking about the disconnects, especially in motion pictures and on top of that being African Americans, so that when they go out into the world, at least they won’t shortchange themselves in the way they should perform the tasks they happen to be in.”