Cinematographer Bradford Young on Lighting Dark Skin and the ‘Subversive’ Power of the Black Church

By Jamilah King Oct 10, 2014

Every cinematographer’s job rests on how they’re able to manipulate light. For Bradford Young, a black Brooklyn-based cinematographer from Louisville, Kentucky, the task is especially important. "When you underexpose [dark brown skin tones], they pop and resonate and shine in a particular way that you’re not going to see when a face is lit in a conventional way," he told me over the phone recently. "You’re doing black folk a great disservice when you overexpose their skin."

Young’s approach is currently on display in "Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Radical Black Brooklyn," an exhibition produced by the public art nonprofit Creative Time in conjunction with Weeksville Heritage Center. The four-part "walkable" exhibit explores the concept of black self-determination. Young’s "Bynum Culter," an experimental film starring members of one of Brooklyn’s oldest black churches, Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church, is among the most powerful parts of the exhibition.

Young’s feature film work has earned him plenty of fans: His cinematography in "Pariah," "Mother of George" and "Aint Them Bodies Saints" won him awards at the 2011 and 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The New York Times’ Amanda Peterusich called his work on Ava DuVernay’s "Middle of Nowhere" "a triumphant, signature moment." Colorlines spoke to Young about his installation and his approach to filmmaking in general.

Your "Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine" project features elderly members of one of Brooklyn’s oldest black churches. Why was it important for you to tell this part of their story?

When I started doing my research on Weeksville, [one of America’s first free black communities], I thought about the whole idea of the homesteader, the black settlement and black nationalism. At the core of all of those movements was spirituality. I grew up in the AME church, and I have my own feelings about the church, but I felt like [during the mid-19th century], the church wasn’t just a place where folks went to ask God for favors. The church was an active participant in what I would call black subversive activity.

Subversive activity?

The Civil Rights Movement started out in the church, and the Black Panthers had a lot of their community initiatives come out of church basements. When you look at the Chitlin’ Circuit, a lot of the musicians who weren’t allowed to play in integrated facilities played at small black establishments in the community or some of them played in the church.

I thought setting my project in the church would allow me to explore not just its sacred nature, which is very important to me, but also the subversive, secular nature of it. One of the ways I thought I could connect to this subversive nature was to connect with elders because they have a much more subversive history. With [Bethel Tabernacle AME] in particular, if you’ve belonged to that church 50 years or more, you’re called a Living Legend. That means you’ve got to New York in the 1940s or 1950s. … I thought I could connect to them in the sense that people of their generation often left the South because they were tired of Jim Crow. But when they got to New York, they realized that it wasn’t all that different. They had to put their elbows out in order to survive. I figured they would say they got a lot of strength from being an active participant in the church.


Scene from "Bynum Cutler"

The setting of the film is really, really powerful. Viewers are in this dilapidated church, which was housed in a school building. It’s got a chilling effect. You talk about black nationalism and black Brooklyn of 50 years ago, and then you’re in this space that’s ravaged in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying faster than any other in New York City. Tell me about the space. It’s haunting.

I was interested in an exploration of black American ruins–black architectural ruins, especially, because they speak to how much America has divested from black people’s interests. They show how hard it is, economically, for us to handle pieces of infrastructure just because we don’t have the economic power. And then on the other hand, it just shows you how much our reality in America is laced with so much blight.

Why are you interested in black ruins?

If you walk into an older piece of black architecture, let’s say a church or an old insurance building somewhere in America, you find these ruins. On one extreme, the ruins speak so much to how we just don’t have the power to sustain ourselves, infrastructure-wise. The other extreme is that there aren’t any ruins at all. You go to Auction Street in Memphis and the building where they sold black folks is gone. It’s that mentality of forgiving and forgetting. Black folk are not part of that conversation.

We don’t own the bulldozers to knock down the auction block houses, but it’s done supposedly on our behalf because America is afraid to have a conversation about slavery and the Middle Passage. It hits on two extremes: Either we don’t have any residue at all or the residue that we do have tells you about how disempowered we are. 

I’m really fascinated by how you use light in your work. It’s often dark and somber. What are you trying to convey about the experiences of black people through your use of light?

We’re all sort of brainwashed on many levels, so part of the reason why I’ve always thought about lighting black folks in a particular way is because there are levels, right? I’m trying to decolonize my mind from all the images of black folks in American cinema that have bombarded me since I was a kid. All of these images since "Birth of a Nation" still sit with us because we haven’t had an opportunity to change them. How many black films get made each year? You can’t change the image of black folk when you only make five films each year that are at least trying to push back against that imagery.

I light some stuff unconsciously because I’m just fed up and tired and feel like things can be done better. It also goes back to the pedagogy I came out of Howard [University] with, which was: You gotta’ do your people right. If not, we won’t be here." But purely from an aesthetic perspective, some of it is just that it looks good. 

[I] had a great opportunity to workshop those ideas because [on] the films I shot before I got to New York, I had 10 to 12 black folks in the room and I got to figure out what looked good. All of it has an intention. When I shot "Pawn Sacrifice," I was one of the only black people on set for like three months. We were shooting in Montreal and I hadn’t seen another black person in months. The one day [a] brother showed up, I just lit the hell out of him. I was on a mission to show white folks how black folks can look really beautiful.


Exhibit-goers watch "Bynum Cutler"

"Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn" ends on October 12.