Director: Khalik Allah
Runtime: 60 mins
Screening: ICA, London
At first glance photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas seems the worst kind of poverty porn imaginable. The kind that disguises itself as an insider’s report or an observation performed by somebody no different from the subjects being observed. But as Allah’s series of cinematic street portraits progresses we begin to see that the film is far from that.
Shot almost exclusively on 125th and Lexington Avenue in Harlem and entirely at night. Field Niggas presents 61 minutes of montage sequence close-ups, featuring a vast array of characters who inhabit the New York streets after dark. Drug addicts, police officers, alcoholics, vagrants. A sea of deformed, distressed and disenfranchised faces fill the frame in voice-overs recorded purposefully out of sync with the images. These ‘Field Niggas’ tell their stories, offer numerous pearls of wisdom, perform spoken word, inserting a chorus of coarse New York accents, which make the whole duration feel like an elongated skit from a 90s Hip-Hop record.
It’s apparent very few of the subjects view the street police presence favourably, as Allah discusses the death of Eric Garner, which also took place at the time of filming (Garner’s confrontation with the police is shown in the film). If Field Niggas is to be considered a response to Black Lives Matter it may be one of the most poignant yet. Not because of the presence and disdain toward the police, but more so, the contextual, historical and sociological assertion which the film seems to exemplify. Perhaps Allah’s point, in reference and in conjunction with Malcolm X’s famous allegory, is that the city is, in some respects, the modern equivalent of an 18th century slave plantation. While bankers, lawyers, waiters and interns are working their lives away in tall New York buildings like "House Niggas". The "Field Niggas" are stalking the city streets for another fix of hope.
Although, Field Niggas might make for some somber viewing, Allah’s unflinchingly positive presence adds an optimistic dimension to the images. In his voice-over he refers to the economic paradigm as 'a small chapter in the history of Africa and the African diaspora'.
If the constant use of wide apertures and the shallow depth of field photography have anything to conclude, they do so by showing us that the bleeding street lights shot out of focus and the nebulous weed smoke soaring out of black, chiseled lips are not that different to grand images of the cosmos. And perhaps, in the end, neither are we.
Words: David Kwaw Mensah