More a woozy experience you press through than an ethnographic study you watch, Khalik Allah’s hour-long non-narrative street-life doc Field Niggas stands as the most striking sort of urban portraiture. It’s an eye-opener where you’re not always sure precisely who you’re looking at: Faces of unidentified men and women, mostly black, edge into the frame in fluid slow motion, each presented with lyrical grandeur, the night burnished to blue-gold by the streetlamps above. But the bus stops and 99-cent shops abutting their sidewalk at 125th and Lexington in Harlem all are fixed in stubborn un-beauty.
Meanwhile, their voices surge ahead on the soundtrack, untethered to the more deliberate procession of images: “I died once, I came back to life, I saw my soul come out of my body,” a woman states in a gush as we watch someone who might be the speaker pose in her flip-flops and checkered capri pants, showing off a filmy-looking red slip she’s been carrying. The speaker is defiant and proud, eager to dish her wisdom — “I tell you, this life is not no joke!” — but the woman we see seems to be trying to keep the camera from getting a good look at her sad, still eyes.
It’s difficult to guess at her age, as is often the case with people who live on the streets, but she’s not old. Sometimes, we see her by herself, and sometimes she’s with another not-old woman, this one white and blonde and bleeding from the chin. They stand in the rain with their arms around each other, silent and weary, while the voice grows garbled in its exasperated heat: “You see us out here in the streets with nowhere to go? This shit is serious!”
Nobody disputes that, of course. Allah, a street photographer of deserved renown, has achieved something here beyond the familiar documentary impulse to show us the people who live on the streets. His immersive, unsettling techniques dig at a sense of what it might feel like to be among them, especially if you’re high and/or disoriented, uncertain at times of who’s talking about what, hassled by cops and confronted with sorrow and ugliness and face after face, new and old and blearing into one weary, restlessly talkative chorus. (Allah accomplishes all this in half the time that Time Out of Mind took.) Not that the street is all brutal: Once in a while, as a reminder of how different New Yorks jar up against one another, Allah focuses on a young woman of model-beauty, well put together and just on her way to the subway.
You’ll glimpse Allah, at times, in mirrors or shop windows, pointing his digital camera at the people he’s met, and as the film goes on he becomes one of its more prominent speakers, even announcing out loud in the final minutes just what it is he set out to accomplish. That might not have been necessary, but the film would benefit from more context: Field Niggas never explicitly mentions the several methadone clinics near the spot Allah filmed, the same location where Lou Reed talk-sang of scoring dope in “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Even the intersection itself goes unnamed, an omission that, curiously, might make this deeply specific film play to some audiences as unlocalized: Maybe the cineastes seeking out such a film will presume that this is what all of Harlem is like. That said, the accomplishment and fascination here is universal: Here are faces, shot with care and inspiration, and the most free and wild talk.
Directed by Khalik Allah
Independent Filmmaker Project
Opens October 16, Made in NY Media Center