At the Sundance Film Festival last weekend, Howard University graduate Bradford Young won the dramatic-feature cinematography award for his work on the films “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Mother of George” — his second time accepting the honor, having won in 2011 for the coming-of-age drama “Pariah.”
The Sundance recognition reinforces what many in the industry have known for a few years now: Howard, best known for its law and medical schools, has become an incubator for people whose work with lighting, lenses, camera movement, film stocks and visual textures has profoundly influenced contemporary cinematic grammar.
“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.”
Ask the cinematographers themselves what the secret is, and you’ll get a range of answers: Dickerson, who came to Howard in 1972 to study architecture, credits an atmosphere of free-ranging experimentation that permeated not just the campus but Washington film culture at large. (He’s gone on to become a director in his own right and is visiting the Howard campus this week to lead a series of seminars.) Jafa, who came later and studied under Gerima and his L.A. Rebellion colleague, Ben Caldwell, recalls Caldwell speculating about a film version of traditional black art forms. “I was interested in [finding] the cinematic equivalent of Cecil Taylor or Jimi Hendrix or James Brown,” Jafa says. “My temperament was very much to question: What is black cinema? ‘Not Hollywood’ wasn’t a viable definition for me. How do we transpose these aesthetic, philosophical, existentially driven values onto this medium that did not develop in response to our needs and expressive desires?”
Associate professor Alonzo Crawford, who has taught cinematography since 1974, agrees that, if Howard has a secret to minting talented cinematographers, it’s in the mix of theory and pragmatism that go hand in hand with one of the country’s premier African American educational institutions. “I impress upon the young people that there’s more to it than just pointing the camera,” he says. “It’s very interesting that the fundamental building block of the motion picture is termed ‘shot.’ Therefore, the camera must be a weapon. And the shot has to be at the enemy or the [source] of your oppression, or else you blow your own brains out with it.”
Crawford teaches the basics, too: He puts his students through overnight “boot camps,” where they’re urged to “shoot and shoot and shoot.” He immerses them in Caravaggio and Rembrandt in order to study the painterly use of light. Dickerson, Jafa and Young — each of whom Crawford taught — internalized those values in their own manner, he says. “They all relate that to their social and political consciousness. So when it comes to lighting someone a certain way, there is Hollywood and then there is Brad, who’s doing it a different way.”
Young has developed a versatile but also consistently poetic, oblique visual style. He lights his subjects softly, which not only looks lovely but has deep aesthetic and political implications, according to Hans Charles, a Howard alumnus and Young’s frequent camera assistant. “On a micro-level, he’s coaxing out different hues within different skin tones,” Charles explains. “On a macro-level, he’s trying to express the diversity within the African diaspora.”
Andrew Dosunmu directed “Mother of George,” worked with Young on ”Restless City” and has also worked with Jafa and Sayeed. He notes that as divergent as they are in visual style, they share a philosophical sensibility.
“I think being men of color, the way they want to photograph people of color is a big objective for them,” he says. “They all come from Howard [and] they’ve seen the way people of color have been photographed since the inception of cinema, that the way we’re represented is not truly justified, and I think that drives them a lot.”
For his part, Young credits another film professor, Daniel Williams, and especially Gerima as the spiritual godfather of what may be, by now, fairly codified as a bona fide successor to the L.A. Rebellion — the Howard Continuum. “I think Haile is the beginning of it all,” Young says. “He made us believe and understand that if we were going to engage in image-making in a filmmaking context, a form that was forged with ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ we had to be on point.” If you were coming from Howard, he notes: “You weren’t just going to be cinematographers who would be part of a whole Hollywood machine. You’re going to represent excellence in our community. Because you’re emerging from the mecca of black education.”