Visiting Filmmakers Series: Lemonade cinematographer Khalik Allah on campus April 5 and 6

"It makes them look beautiful." 

On April 5, photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah visited George Mason University to present his documentary, Field Niggasand discuss his art, the spiritual center of his work, and his approach to his subjects. Our discussion was facilitated by Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post and Wendi Manuel-Scott, director of African and African American Studies at GMU. 

On Wednesday, April 6, Khalik joined a group of students for lunch, including members of GMU's Delta Kappa Alpha and Black Student Alliance. He spoke of his childhood on Long Island, the digital filmmaking course he took at college, his nights working at AMC network, and the years he spent making Field Niggas. Asked about his current projects, he said mentioned a recent two-day shoot he'd done for Beyonce. He smiled, then told us he wasn't sure what might come of it... then said nothing more. 

Two weeks later, we learned that Khalik was one of the cinematographers and second unit director for Lemonade.
 Imagine how hard it was to keep that secret.

As Ann Hornaday writes in the Post, one of the many ways that "Beyoncé perfected the ‘visual album’ with ‘Lemonade’," was to collaborate with gifted, original "of-the-moment filmmakers" such as Khalik Allah. 

The 31-year-old artist, raised in Brookhaven, Long Island, inspired by hip-hop (it's "an education," he says) as well as photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, and Gordon Parks, sees his work as a means to many ends, helping his subjects to share their experiences, providing light for both subjects and viewers, finding a range of self-expressions. Field Niggas documents his interactions with people on the corner of Harlem's 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, many of them homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol. As Khalik said during the Q&A following the screening at GMU, he uses his camera to reveal the beauty in everyone, to help viewers understand what they share with people they might assume are "other." 

The day after the screening, Khalik spoke with Sue Wrbican's Documentary Photography class (AVT 457). He shared his work, remembered how he came to know the interviewees in Field Niggas, including a longtime collaborator named Frenchie (now deceased). and encouraged students to consider the perpetually blurred boundaries between art and documentary. While at GMU, Khalik also sat down for a Cameo interview, a DKA production, with special guest host Nicole Cross, Public Relations Chair for BSA.

Khalik's work for Lemonade and in his own documentaries (one of his next projects has taken him back to Jamaica, where he has family) is consistently provocative, urging people to consider the way they interpret and judge what they see. As Hornaday writes in "Bold films negotiate the fine line between voyeurism and bearing witness," “'Field Niggas' makes a powerful claim for the dignity and visibility of its subjects, even as it travels to precincts far outside their purview. What could have been an example of “ethnographic” documentary at its most patronizing instead becomes an opportunity for radical engagement -- thanks to Allah’s reflexive eye for humor, pathos and beauty, his willingness to interact unguardedly with his subjects on-screen, and a nonsynchronized sound design that demands more of the audience than passive onlooking."

In order to encourage that participation, the film is provocative, beginning with its title. Khalik Allah explains, "The title is also an ode to my superheroes Nat Turner and Toussaint Louverture, and different slaves that ran away. Those were always the people I looked up to as a kid. Malcolm X was the first person who brought the idea of the house negro and the field negro to mind for me. The people that I am documenting are the unrepresented; these are the field slaves of today, and many don't realize the position they are playing in this chess game. People don't understand how the prison complex is making so much money for the government. These people are always going to prison."

In an express effort to resist such confines -- and again, to encourage viewers to share in the process -- Khalik tells Gawker, his film "feels free because it allows the audience to participate mentally with the project. I’m not telling you what to think throughout the film; the out-of-sync audio and video enables that. With this, you’re seeing something in slow motion that’s like an abstract depiction of what you’re hearing, and what you’re hearing is in real time. That break, between audio and video, lets you invest your own imagination into the project and participate with it. Then there’s the stylistic element: it almost helps you to forgive the situation because the film is so artistically done and the people are shot in such a dignified way that it makes them look beautiful." 
The effect is startling, becomes mesmerizing. You become aware of what Khalik calls "that break," as well as the spiritual connections among individuals.

Images, we see now, can free both voices and responses, pose questions, and inspire self-awareness. Khalik Allah's "Camera Ministry" is alive and breathing, visible and visceral, in Field Niggas and also in the street interview images he shot for Lemonade -- a film that also draws on Malcolm X, his sampled voice reminding us, "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman." Grainy and gorgeous, Khalik's images of people looking into the camera, looking at you, appear throughout Lemonade. Much like the portraits in Field Niggas, these offer a new way to think about art and politics, to see yourself as well as others. 

Thank you to everyone who helped to create our special event at GMU: African and African American Studies, Film and Video Studies, GMU Black Student Alliance, GMU Delta Kappa Alpha, the English Department, Cultural Studies, and University Life. Thank you also to Giovanna Chesler, Kristin Samuelian, Mika'il Petin, Latoya Mason, Aja Clark, Nicole Cross, Sue Wrbican, and Rebekah Mejorado.

#filmconnects #fieldniggas #deltakappaalpha #blackstudentalliance

Event photos by David Mason, GMU Film and Video Studies Program. 

Photo collages by DKA

See more of Khalik Allah's work on YouTube