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BRADFORD YOUNG: The Visionary

Over the last few years, there have been few names to ring bells on the film scene for pushing innovation, while remaining creatively astute. As the cinematographer/Director of Cinematography on indie film favorites like “Entre Nos”, “Mississippi Damned”, “Restless City” and now “Pariah”, Bradford Young leads the pack.

Words and Interview: Aimstar
Images: Stills courtesy of Bradford Young

You may have seen interviews with Bradford Young recently, which hark on the fact that this 30-something, Howard University School of Communications graduate is the one the film industry’s been waiting for. Quietly unassuming, the films—”projects”, as he calls them, that he has given his extraordinary cinematography efforts to, reveal that he is quite the observant type and very much aware of his surroundings. Capturing the full essence of each moment in every frame, as he did brilliantly with Pariah, his newest film, which releases next week in the States, almost feels as if you’re living the movie he’s made as opposed to watching it some months, even years after he’s added his final touches. It’s a feat most filmmakers would kill for: turning the game on its axis, while commanding notice of your craft, instead of who you know or who you’ve worked with. For Bradford, the plot is much more simple; it’s all about liberating the image.

What are you doing in Sri Lanka?

I’m shooting Khyentse Norbu’s—He’s a Bhutanese director—his new film. I’ll be here for like three months. I get back in March basically. I’m in my second week of prep and we don’t start shooting until January 2nd.

Are you excited?

Yeah, I’m amped. It’s actually a pretty interesting experience cause Khyentse (we call him Rinpoche because he’s actually a Buddhist priest), who has had films before like The Cup in ’99 and Travelers and Magicians travel in ’03 or ’04— it’s just been really humbling to be out here with him.

Is this your first time in Sri Lanka?

This is actually my first time this far east. I haven’t been any further east than Iraq.

But you said Iraq though… Not many people have even gone to Iraq, know what I mean? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

I know it’s been a while, but can you describe the first moment you picked up a camera?

I didn’t really pick up a camera until 1998. I was kind of not really sure about how I wanted to deal with the film world up until that point. I knew I didn’t want to be a director, you know. I was kind of intrigued by sound, but I was still trying to work it out. So ’98 was the first time I picked up a camera, but I still didn’t pick it up as a cinematographer. I just picked up sort of like an exploratory medium, cause at that point too, I could have gone towards the art world. I could have seen how I could have become an installation artist or a video artist. But you know how it goes: you get asked to shoot something and you show it in class [at Howard University], and then folks are like, “Oh, can you shoot my film?” And that turned into one film, which lead to another film, and another, it was just one of those things, like a process of elimination. You shoot one film and you take it to class, and no one says anything. So you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s not working.’ Then you show up with something photographic and people really feel it, then you sort of just go that way because you want to sustain some sort of confidence. That’s really how it happened. It was totally by accident. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a cinematographer. I didn’t even grow up thinking that I would be an artist. I always thought I’d be…

In the family business, essentially? [Laughs]

Yeah, the family business. [Laughs] Exactly. I thought I was going to be a mortician for sure. It’s funny because when I graduated from undergrad, I actually had a brief moment where I thought I’d go back and help out with the family business.

What does your family say now, when they see you being awarded the Cinematography Award at Sundance?

[Laughs] It’s been like a slow and gradual incline. They sort of forgot a little bit earlier, but it was really a question of being a product of a very pragmatic, conservative, Black family, where people are concerned about how you’re going to make a living and how you’re going to feed your family, how are you going to feed yourself, how are you going to pay for healthcare—all of those things that everybody goes through. That was sort of the general concern. It wasn’t about whether I was going to be—well, yeah, that’s also a barometer for success, if you can achieve all of those things and you’re successful at all those things no matter what you do, then okay. They saw early on, like “Maybe he’s serious. Maybe this isn’t just a hobby.” So when the whole Sundance thing happened, it was like “Okay, yeah this is really happening. He can’t drop out now!” [Laughs] It’s a whole other discussion happening in my family about what I’m doing.

Coming from a conservative Black family as you said, it seems like the films that you choose to work on are anything but pragmatic or conservative. They’re raw and push beyond anything that we’ve thought about before or considered. What’s the method behind the madness there?

Well, my grandmother was definitely one of the like free, liberated spirits. She was sort of a woman of her time, but not really a woman of her time, someone whom I would consider a very cultured person. My grandfather, who was very conservative and very rigid, was sort of brought into the light by her, you know. So they lived in places and travelled all over the world, where a person like my grandfather wouldn’t necessarily go at his own will, but my grandmother was sort of like the leader. My uncle is a sort of well-known Folk musician and his son, who is also a very well-known Blues musician—I had good examples of folks in my family that were very open and very mindful people. So there’s that end, so that’s why a script like Pariah wouldn’t scare me because I grew up around a lot of LGBT folks, even in the small town that I lived in.

Then there’s also the thing about integrity too. My grandfather was like community man, an outstanding business man and very much like a race first man. His thing was always about integrity, so whatever you’re going to do, please do it so that you can leave behind some sort of residue, some sort of legacy. I kind of hope I’m doing that, I’m not sure, but I try. I’m trying to honor him on that level and I’m definitely trying to honor my grandmother by being a very open-minded, mindful person like she was. It’s the reason why I pick the projects that I have and sort of the anxiety I have about the projects I’m not doing, versus the projects that I am.

Anxiety?

You know, it’s interesting, you come out of Howard [University] and you’re very prepared to have like a lot of confidence in self and in what you’re doing, but you’re not necessarily able to handle when majority cultural folks on the other side sort of turn their gaze toward you. I don’t always know how to handle that, you know. It doesn’t punk out all of the things that everybody at Howard sort of teach you though, to stand on the shoulders [of giants] and you’ll make it through.

I think your work is amazing and that you are leaving a legacy. I really appreciate what you’re bringing to the table, from lighting to your film selection process. Whenever I see something new you’re doing, I’m always like, “He gets it.” And very few do…actually I should rephrase that, we’re starting to see more and more of the people who do get it, however few they are. How does it feel to be a part of the community of hidden cultural gems, the new school of thought where the craft or artistry outweighs everything else?

On one level it’s very exciting, but on another level it’s very sad. I’m excited by what I see in terms of self-authorizing artistry from the community of artists of color mainly, who are telling their narrative by any means necessary and doing it with a high level of attention on aesthetics. But then there’s a part of it too that is kind of sad, not sad in a way that it diminishes any sort of satisfaction, you know. It’s nice for you to sort of watch your peers doing their thing, but I don’t feel like we’re holding hands enough. I feel like that’s the missing element. It’s a great moment to be able to sort of cross between what I’m trying to do more of, which is like, I’m doing installations with Leslie Hewitt in an art context, which is cool. Then I’m like working with Andrew [Dosunmu], who sort of straddles the art context and the film in a very quietly confident way. Then there’s Dee [Rees], who’s totally engaged in the film context. I’m sort of crossing in and out of those worlds….And then there’s Ava Duvernay, who’s totally engaged in the industry. We shot her new film this summer, which is Middle of Nowhere and is also in competition at Sundance this year. So I’m in and out of those places and I see great amount of attention and thoughtfulness and mindfulness going towards nuance —like why we tell the stories we tell—but I don’t see us holding hands. It’s sad cause I know on one level Ava is in conversation with the industry, but wants to be more in conversation with the artist part of it too. There’s no reason why her and Leslie don’t link. Dee grew up in Nashville, but her grandmother was very much a Pan Africanist and repatriated to Africa in the ’50s. There’s no reason why her and Andrew aren’t in conversation about certain things. I know Andrew is very much fascinated and aware, and influenced by Southern culture, so I just feel like we need to be building better bridges, you know.

I think you hit the nail on the head. I’ll take it a step further too….At one point within the Indie film genre, everyone was connecting because there was a lack of resources, so you had no choice but to connect and pool together. Now the genre is like the new mainstream, and is operating how the old guard was operating just a few years ago….How do you approach the genre, the business and that network with that said?

Definitely. The upside of underdevelopment is that we ain’t got no precedence. We were never a part of the equation. I would be remiss to not say that I’m quoting Arthur Jafa, who’s like our hero, like our image-making sort of godfather. AJ always says, that we don’t have an image, so we don’t have a precedence. We don’t have a history, we didn’t create the history. We weren’t there to manufacture the technology that’s making history. So in a lot of ways, we’re liberated from being tied into industry. So some of the internal conflicts and the vast contradictions that I see in the industry, I don’t identify with cause I don’t think the industry cares about me. I don’t feel like they’re checking for me anyway. So I look at their contradictions as a mirror of their greater societal contradictions. On one end they want to be rebels, and on the other end they want people to come out of their dissent. Our dissent has never been commodified and when they wanted to commodify it, they created COINTELPRO. J Edgar Hoover created all types of machines to destroy our attempt to be independent, our attempt to build our own sort of infrastructure. So when I look in that direction, everything I see happening makes sense to me. Young filmmakers from that space, who at one point were struggling to make films, that are now the gatekeepers who are telling other filmmakers no. No filmmaker should ever hear the word no. They should just go and make their film. But that doesn’t surprise me, it’s sort of part of America’s historical precedence, like constantly recreating, constantly renegotiating the pieces so that they can shift power. Shifting power is part of their legacy—and this is not with contention, this is with great sort of understanding of how it works. It would actually be a more interesting discussion if they would just admit that that’s what happens and we’re designed products of it. I feel like we’re independent because we’re still fighting for liberation on many levels, you know. And I don’t mean politically, I’m just talking basic historical—we’re just trying to liberate the image. We’re just trying to liberate basic fundamental elements of culture, which are you gotta see yourself to respect yourself. We’re just trying to do that. We’re so primal, we’re so neanderthal in that area, that when I look over I say, “Hey y’all, I see you fighting. Good luck on the struggle.” Over here, I see a bigger battle, a battle that is just in the beginning stages.

Absolutely, we should be linking and working together on a more cohesive level…I agree 100 percent

Ava wrote an interesting article for IndieWire, and it was called “What Color is Indie”. It was really like a letter to Ted Hope, like you big up everybody from your community but there are also folks who don’t look like you and don’t come from your community who are doing equally interesting, if not more successful than those you claim to be the beacons of independent films. So how come we’re not part of the discussion? That’s it in a nutshell, there it is. It’s just like, I’m not surprised. They have great contradiction and we don’t even have to be a part of the conversation. We can just be free to do our thing. Once we free up all notions of who we are, we won’t care what they think. We can just do us and keep it moving.

I read an interview that you did, where you said: “I’m constantly battling this idea of reconstructive reality with artificial things.” I know you were talking about your lighting technique, but for some reason it kind of struck me as more profound—the idea of reconstructing reality and the artificial, especially at a time like right now, when you’re thinking about the aesthetic and the actual cultural value of a thing. What kind of reality are you trying to create from behind the camera?

To be honest with you and this may sound a little cliche, because I don’t like to really use the word universal, but in a lot of ways I guess I am trying to create a universal, cerebral reality. That’s it, I’m trying to create something very mindful.

Without the fluff…

Without the fluff. I’ve seen too many examples of things that we weren’t a part of that kind of blew me away and I just said to myself, damn I know that story. I’ve seen that story in my own community a billion times, how come I don’t see it on screen, you know? And when I see it, how come it doesn’t have the gravity? Human beings talking to one another and us recording them talking to one another, I don’t feel is enough. I feel like in order for us to feel it, you gotta know it. And in order to know it, you would have had to see it before and heard it before as well.

It’s funny that you say that because when I look at your work, I feel like a voyeur. It feels very natural, perhaps that’s the lighting, but it feels like I’m in the scene. I’m a fly on the wall and I’ve never seen film do that to your extent in a long time, if ever. It’s both gritty and clean. It’s all the diametrically opposing forces and moods at work together.

Here’s the thing, if you go out into the desert of Mali or you go to the desert of Niger, you find Tuaregs who are like humping around in sand on camels, but the textiles they’re wearing are so damn bright and shiny, and just so amazing, so damn decorative—it’s just like those contradictions are around us everywhere. A brother on the corner somewhere in Crown Heights [Brooklyn, NYC] with a pit bull standing in front of Kingston lounge—the most dilapidated and most beautiful building in all of Crown Heights—and he’s wearing the cleanest fitted cap, pulled down all the way to the top of his ears. The tags are still on it, that shiny measured tag. We just have so many examples of that with what’s around us and I feel like that’s a challenge. We don’t do well with polarity; if it’s gritty, it’s got to be dirty. If it’s glossy, it’s got to be clean. No, that’s not how we operate; while our life is dirty and gritty, we always try to keep it clean. Our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations are great examples of that.

Like Restless City was very crisp and sharp, very resolved images, and in some places it almost feels like glitter. Some of that is a result of technology, but most of that is inspired by an African filmmaker who is not afraid of aesthetic, way more into it than I am. He was my teacher before I started shooting with him. Like I had been looking at Andrew’s photographs forever, which are a great testament to that because he’ll take somebody and put them in the most textured environment with a beautiful gown on. He gets it and understands those beautiful contradictions.

Are you ready to create your own films? And if you are, would you create a film about your family because they seem super interesting?

I still don’t have time to put anything on paper so I’m not sure if I’m ready. I’m working on something about mules, let me just say that. Heirloom mules and like a Black family who had a rare Hinny during the Great Depression, and how they were able to sustain wealth during that time because they mastered the craft of breeding, cross-breeding and genetically engineering the most amazing beasts of burden.

[Laughs] Oh my God, I can not wait to see that!!!

But that could be a million years from now, I might have to pass that on to my son or daughter. [Laughs]

Any last words before you go?

Mindfulness. Let me say this, and you gotta put this in…Haile Gerima is the godfather god of all of us. He’s the man that made me, Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed, Arthur Jaffa, Tommy-Upshaw Maddox, Cliff Charles—he made all of us. Now those were cats who went to Howard, and even the ones who didn’t go to Howard like Johnny Simmons. He is the cat that made us realize how important it was for us to be conscious of the image even though he’s not a cinematographer. He’s the one who built the bridge between all of us. We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for him. The Howard film program wouldn’t be here. All this discussion and contemplation that we’re having on intellect and how that ties to image-making, that all came from Haile saying, “Don’t be no dumb technician.” Also be a cat from Tupelo, Mississippi or from Louisville, Kentucky. Be a guy from Brooklyn, New York, whose mother is Muslim and his father is in the Nation [of Islam]. Be all of those things and let that be in your work no matter what you do.

Pariah, directed by Dee Rees, with cinematography by Bradford Young, hits theaters nationwide on December 28, 2011.

Stills courtesy of Bradford Young.

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