Review: Through a Lens Darkly (video)

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Xochitl Bernadette Moreno's picture
 
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Elderly Africa America couple in family photo
Family photo ablums tell a tale of African American history in the film Through a Lens Darkly.

By Sailor Holladay

When introducing Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People at Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBTQ Film Festival, the film’s writer/producer, Don Perry told the audience to think of three things as we watched the film: affirmation, representation, and unconditional love.

These themes resonate throughout the film, especially in the images from family photo albums. “There is one place where all secret’s reside: in the family photo album,” the film’s narrator proclaims. Secrets reside there, yes, but as we watch the film unfold, we see all the good stuff too that is often hidden by our racist society: family achievements, celebration, affection toward one another, a photographed grandfather’s painstaking care, dignified dress and postures.

This film is at least all of these films in one: a history of negative representation of African-Americans, a history of Black photographers, a chronology of when Black people have been photographed, and a call to show what’s possible when Black people are able to represent themselves.

Using over 915 images (whittled down by the filmmakers from 15,000) and interviews with contemporary Black photographers, artists, and scholars, Through a Lens Darkly asks who is left out of both the family photo album and U.S. society’s photo album. How have perpetual negative representations of African-Americans damaged both their self-image as well as the fabric of our society? Who is allowed to record their history and who has the means to do so?

Through a Lens Darkly is a counter balance to all of the racist imagery against people of color we still see in 2014. I saw this film a few days after the Central Park Five were finally awarded forty-one million dollars for their wrongful conviction and incarceration. These five, young Black and Latino men were charged with raping a white woman and sent to prison for a crime they did not commit. The way the media handled this case at the time in 1989, filled white people with fear of people of color that had no basis in reality. As stated in Through a Lens Darkly, “Seemingly a never ending barrage of negative representations wields a certain kind of political force even though they are fictions.”

Something unique about this film was it didn’t seem to assume its primary audience was white. The film’s writer/producer Don Perry was on a Frameline panel about the challenges of filming queer history, and when I asked him to address this, he said that they made the film with young Black men in mind. “We wanted to be able to show images of family that could stand in the stead for your family if you didn’t know who your father was.” Don Perry continued, “When we see ourselves represented in public spaces, our lives our validated and we can see we belong to the culture.”

The filmmakers have created a related project called the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion. This interactive website gives African Americans a place to upload their photographs, documents, and stories, further developing public African-American archives as well as building community. This project aligns with one of the film’s goals: “to create a space where it is safe to share images”. The Digital Diaspora project can be found here: http://ddfr.tv

Through a Lens Darkly will be distributed in theaters by First Run features. It plays at Film Forum in New York City starting August 27th and will air on PBS in February 2015.

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