It’s been almost 60 years since 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was beaten, tortured, and murdered by white men for having allegedly spoken to a white woman. His mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral so that the world could see — and photographers could document — the brutality inflicted on her son marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle. Images of the gruesomely disfigured child underscored black American realities for the world in a way that encapsulated past, present, and, seemingly, future.
When those images are shown in Thomas Allen Harris’s rich, moving documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, they have lost none of their power to horrify. But it’s the photos of Till’s weeping mother at his funeral that really devastate, and it’s impossible not to make the connection between Mrs. Till and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Kendrick Johnson, Darrien Hunt, and too many more to mention.
It’s a film dense with both information and purpose, and the Till photos distill something of Harris’s overall goals for Through a Lens: to document the photographic documentation of black life in America that was produced by black Americans; to use historical photos of black life to provide counter-narratives to prevailing bigoted notions; to mine history to help figure out how we might all break the cycles of inequity, inequality, and suffering.
Speaking by phone from Memphis, where he was appearing with the film, Harris elaborated on those goals.
“I think [what I’m doing] goes back to the idea of the griot, or Greek poet who tells a community its story so we don’t get caught up in these loops and we have a sense of who we are. It’s not just African Americans but the whole country that suffers when we don’t have a fuller view of history. In the post-screening conversation we had yesterday, people were talking about how the film gives a counter-narrative to the notion of Reconstruction as a failure. I’m in Memphis, and that’s such a prevalent idea, but actually Reconstruction was a success. The way it was branded after the fact has resulted in us seeing it as a failure. Reconstruction got torpedoed by that big rewrite of history, Birth of a Nation, an aesthetic achievement that recast Reconstruction as a failure and African Americans as savages, despite all of that being the exact opposite of the truth. That film, which caused laws and the truth to be completely shifted, is a testament to the aesthetic and political powers of the image.”
Ten years in the making, Harris’s film, based in part on art historian Deborah Willis’s groundbreaking book Reflections in Black, received some funding from PBS, but Harris was determined that the film not be an exercise in didactic, prescriptive filmmaking.
“I wasn’t interested in an explaining perspective, you know, explaining to a white audience” — here his voice pitches to a melodramatic tone — “what we’ve been through,” he laughs. “It was driven more by poetics and personal vision. I was very much aware that my primary audience was young people, particularly young people of color, but young people in general. There’s a certain way that they read and consume images which is very different than older generations. There’s a way in which they are able to make visual connections really fast because so much of digital space is fueled by images and is about how fast we can consume information. The film was made with all that in mind, and it’s kind of a call to action for young people, to have them maybe rethink some things about identity, the nation, the global community, the truth.”
The film is an expansive, fast-moving look at the African American experience since slavery, canvassing everything from the media savvy of figures like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to the ways that contemporary black identity has been corroded by consumerism. A who’s-who from academia and the visual-arts world weighs in with historical context and pungent analysis. Issues from anti-blackness to intra-racial colorism, from the hiding-in-plain-sight dynamic of LGBT folks to the central roles that black women have played in both political and cultural life are all examined. None of it is rushed or unconsidered.
An example of Harris’s poetic approach to shaping the many and complex ideas is found in the sequence on black female photographers who lived and worked at the beginning and in the middle of the 20th century. The conversation on the women and their achievements makes its way to the remarkable life of Florestine Collins (1895–1988), who passed for white in order to claim career opportunities she’d have been denied as a black woman. The film then segues into a conversation about passing and its effects on black families, and smoothly circles back to photography. It’s a graceful shuffling of the thematic deck that never loses sight of the larger purpose.
“I went to college at a time when everyone was talking about affirmative action,” Harris says, “and both blacks and whites were saying, ‘Well, why haven’t African Americans pulled themselves up by their bootstraps the way the Irish or the Italians or Jewish people have?’ When you look at these images, you see that black people actually have pulled themselves up, but that narrative has been hidden within popular culture. When you hide these images of black families, of black people who have clearly worked very hard to achieve what they have, then what takes their place are all these stereotypes. And that is what society is fed. Then we end up with young [black] people who are putting out and consuming all these self-defeating images because that’s what we know to be us. My hope is to show that there was and is so much more than what we’ve been fed.”