Film review: THROUGH A LENS DARKLY: BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLE (2013) DIR. THOMAS ALLEN HARRIS
Inspired by the groundbreaking book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present by Deborah Willis (who also co-produced), the scope of this documentary is reflected by the length of both titles. A beautiful meditative examination of how black Americans have been represented through history or, more importantly, not represented. As a demographic they seem to have been mostly represented in stereotypical situations: as slaves, servants, performers, protestors or anthropological specimens. Seldom do we see images of regular black Americans in ordinary circumstances. The most demeaning of all of these are advertising images. The damage done by that to the group psyche of that population could hardly be imagined by those who were guilty of the practice. Most probably, on account of the fact that they were not thinking of their humanity. What this thoughtful and poetic film aims to do is to present the rest of the picture of everyday black Americans in their daily lives, as families in nice homes, celebrating, going on holidays, marking important events with formal portraits. It also chronicles accomplishments among the black community, artistic, intellectual, musical, cultural, sports, politics. It is, in its way, a form of integration, without being integrated. What would make it really correct the omission would be if it could be shuffled into the deck of cards which is the existing overview of our American history instead of having to be a new curriculum like “Black History”. Why was it left out? The answer to that will be forever to our shame. The awkwardness of redressing this willful denial cannot possibly be graceful or organic. There has been too much pain inflicted and injustice condoned.
However, as much as anything that I have seen, which does attempt to bridge the gap and fill in the blanks, this is not a polemic or an indictment. It feels like a corrective which is rich in words and images from a variety of black photographers and it seduces rather than bullies us into another way of seeing our black fellow citizens in a way that they deserve to be seen - as they see themselves. By bringing together so many splendid images by a wide range of photographers as well as interviews we can see a broad and richly painted canvas which both humanizes and brings much overdue respect to the heritage of a people who have been, in many cases, living in a parallel universe - within sight but unseen by the white world at large. It is totally fascinating and goes a long way to rectify the way so many of us tend to respond to those that are from a different “tribe”.
Review by Belle McIntyre