Bold films negotiate the fine line between voyeurism and bearing witness

by Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Bold films negotiate the fine line between voyeurism and bearing witness


By Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, April 4, 2016

A poetic, mesmerizingly immersive documentary about a group of homeless African Americans who regularly hang out on a Harlem street corner, “Field Niggas” — whose title derives from Malcolm X’s 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots” — can be difficult to watch, not only because Allah captures so much pain and helplessness, but because the viewer is sometimes unsure what his aims are.

More than once as the film has made its way on the international screening circuit, Allah has encountered questions about his ethics. One audience member in London decried the presentation of “black bodies presented as spectacle, at their most vulnerable and denigrated.” Another wondered if “Field Niggas” wasn’t another instance of “poverty porn,” artfully packaged for the delectation of privileged, mostly white art-house audiences.

Those same questions will most likely arise when “Field Niggas” makes its local debut at George Mason University on Tuesday. And, just as likely, Allah will field them with his characteristic blend of bull-headed directness and spiritually minded compassion. As he has explained at previous screenings, he had spent three years with the subjects of “Field Niggas,” photographing and befriending them long before he started to film. His goal, once he turned the camera on, was to create “a family photo album for the homeless,” not a festival-circuit darling.

In fact, “Field Niggas” was intended to be seen only by Allah’s family and friends until programmers at the True/False Film Festival discovered it last year.

Allah was still reeling during the question-and-answer session after the film’s premiere at the festival in Columbia, Mo., simultaneously abashed at his newfound success and adamant that his presentation of street life — its disorder, desperation, mental illness and drug addiction — be seen as a portrait made “from the inside out,” rather than mere objectification.

The fact is that “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.

It’s the accumulation of these formal choices — as well as Allah’s passionate presence when he screens his film for audiences — that elevates “Field Niggas” from poverty porn or pity party and into the realm of bearing witness, the very definition of art. Voyeurism, after all, stops at the act of watching. To go deeper, a film needs to look, listen and maybe even love.

Read the rest of Ann Hornaday's article here.