Not Black and White

Something unprecedented has happened during this awards season. For the first time in American cinema history, an African-American cinematographer has been recognized with repeated nominations. As I’m writing this, in fact, it has just been announced that this cinematographer — Bradford Young, ASC — has also been nominated for an Oscar, all for his work on the feature Arrival.

Bradford is a 39-year-old director of photography whose work on features such as Pariah, Middle of Nowhere, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Mother of George, A Most Violent Year and Selma has garnered increasing attention in recent years. Beyond his impressive visual eye, he’s earned the spotlight for his thoughtful commentary on race in America.

Being a black cinematographer has historically not been easy in our industry. Even today, black cinematographers comprise only a small percentage of our craft’s practitioners. Bradford has been outspoken in his opinions, and he has valiantly used his success and the respect he’s earned to publicly discuss the challenges black artists face.

In a 2015 interview with Christopher Rosen of The Huffington Post, Bradford reflected on his work as a cinematographer: “This was not something I imagined myself doing at 18 or 22. This wasn’t even something I imagined myself doing at 27. I came to the realization that I wanted to be an image maker later in my life. The fact that I’m a black man living in America is something I’ve had to deal with from day one.”

He continued, “Divorced from the images I create as a cinematographer, I’m still dealing with the same socioeconomic and cultural issues that 100 percent of all black people in America are dealing with. The other side of that is that my voice as a cinematographer is informed and shaped by my own sociology and psychology as a black man in America.”

As I read the interview, I found it fascinating and telling that Bradford spoke to the ways in which culture, art and politics all run in close company. It felt as if he was holding up a mirror, both to himself and to the society around him. “Every frame, every inch of my being, every inch of how I light a scene or how I see the world is informed by that lens,” he said. Making films, he noted, “allowed me to access that part of my soul and put it into the images themselves.

“But as many blessings and opportunities that have been given to me,” he continued, “it still doesn’t dismiss the fact that a majority of the sets I work on are not populated by folks of color. They are not diverse. … This is something I see every day and something I’m aware of.”

He added, “It’s a continuous conversation we’ve been having for 400 years of our existence in this country, which is, ‘Just allow me to be a human being, see me for who I am, let me see myself.’ Because if I don’t see myself, how can I make a contribution to the greater society? … Here’s the deal: Most of us in the film community, across the board, work with people who we know. If you use that as a barometer to look at the film world, it just shows you how segregated, xenophobic, sexist, racist and backwards we are as Americans in terms of how we deal with one another.”

Such self-reflection is crucial if we are to make any lasting progress. Bradford went on to say, “It can’t be about, ‘We can make films about change but we’re not changing the way we make the films.’ The next level for us is to turn the mirror on ourselves as filmmakers and see ourselves in the stories we’re trying to tell. If we don’t, we’re not going to change the cultural landscape. We’ll just make movies and go back to our perfect vacuums.”

In that same vein, director Steve McQueen — who took home a Best Picture Oscar for his feature 12 Years a Slave — had this to say in a 2016 interview with The Guardian’s Steve Rose: “This is an important issue. It’s an us issue. Again, this is not about black, not about white — this is about us, how we want to improve our environment and our society, and who we are. So, let’s get on with it. Let’s fix this.”

Kees van Oostrum

ASC President