The ICA this week played host to the UK premiere of the acclaimed Khalik Allah documentary Field Niggas (2014), screening as part of a new film series curated by Frames of Representation (FoR) which aims to bring excluded communities in front of the camera lens. The film’s provocative title recalls Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots, in which he delineated his concept of the two types of slaves. The entire 60-minute film focuses on the night-time activities of New York’s weary and destitute (in some cases homeless) citizens, from the lower income brackets, captured by Allah’s roaming camera around the boundaries marked by the Harlem street corner of 125th and Lexington Avenue in 2014. This corner has become a sort of gathering point for those lost outside of the normal boundaries of society, apparently in a time capsule isolated from the gentrification of New York that proceeds apace.
Undeniably hauntingly beautiful in its crisp high definition cinematography that captures the alluring haze of the Big Apple at night- the film is also both hypnotic in the way its soundtrack remains disconnected from the slow-motion visuals. It is always unclear who is speaking, leaving the viewer with the impression that these voices are floating through the night air outside of any single body. The portraits of the various citizens are strikingly composed, strongly lit and with the slowed film speed enhancing the shifting effects of smoke clouds (many of the subjects are addicted to smoking K2) and other substances. The film is as deeply saddening as it is gorgeous, in its frank display of the trials and tribulations those ailed by homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are going through.
Without judging, Allah allows his subjects to narrate their stories of dreams lost, friends gone, and hopes for a future that some can still see as possible. Thus these people gain a certain dignity in their trying circumstances. The camera movements create a sense of drift, as if you the viewer were wandering around the street corner with little direction, maybe as the interview subjects themselves do night after night, unseen by most of the city’s inhabitants. Captivating, if upsetting, viewing, a unqiue experience that is disrupted only by the director’s continuous interventions into the film himself, which starts to feel like a misstep.
“I don’t see other photographers where I shoot, only surveillance cameras. When asked if fear was the main theme of my work I said it’s not fear, but the removal of fear leading to the awareness of Love that interests me. We don’t react to anything directly in the world, only to our interpretation of things. And our interpretations are mostly wrong. Photography is a therapeutic tool I use to confront my own perception, and challenge my ego. It strengthens my spirit when I see passed appearances and approach people who I would’ve otherwise avoided.”