The material that Guggenheim-winning, race-history doc-maker Harris works with in Through a Lens Darkly is rich and stunning: the semi-secret history of African-American photo imagery, from the slavery days to the present.
The circumstantial subtext of the early photos is always fascinating — portraits of naked slaves, and black family album shots during the Restoration, and the defiant selfies printed and sold by Sojourner Truth as 19th-century totems of black power, all radiated practical, sociopolitical import in their day. Photography’s force as a generator of signifiers and social ideas was, from its very beginning, particularly meaningful for, as Harris puts it, a people in “emergence.”
Would that Harris had simply let the images and their historical context speak for themselves. His narration is simplistic and narcissistic (he ominously tells us “I was stunned and hurt” the first time he saw The Birth of a Nation), and the textual ideas he and his interviewees present about the intersection between race and imagery are hardly fresh. Several tangents could be films unto themselves — Booker T. Washington’s “Negro exhibition” at the 1900 Paris Expo, the career of photog Roy de Carava, the meaning of lynching photography — but here they’re given short shrift.
There is enough for a PBS mini series — with a bit more heavy lifting and a bit less me-me-me.