EDITOR'S NOTE: On this day in film history, December 28, 2011, Dee Rees' feature film debut, "Pariah" opened in USA theaters after much fanfare that followed its Sundance Film Festival premiere in the same year. Celebrating this film's 5 year anniversary today, we revisit a brief conversation (handled by Nijla Mumin) we had with the DP who shot the film, Bradford Young, who has since gone on to shoot even bigger films, both at the indie and studio level. Most recently he DP'd for Paramount's Denis Villeneuve-directed sci-fi flick "Arrival" which opened last month and is currently in theaters. Its only a matter of time before he's recognized for his work with the industry's highest honors, including an Academy Award (he hasn't even been nominated for one). But let's take a trip down memory lane, before "Middle of Nowhere," "Mother of George," "A Most Violent Year," "Selma," and other films he shot after "Pariah," to a chat with Bradford about "Pariah" specifically, which was first published on this blog during the week in December 2011 when the film was set to open theatrically. I'm certain many of you (especially those who weren't readers of this blog in 2011) haven't read the piece, and maybe haven't even seen the film. So consider this a push: read the interview (it's short)), and then go watch the film which is currently streaming on Netflix.
Dee Rees’ "Pariah" promises to be a compelling narrative that also features one of the more evocative visual palettes in recent cinema. Director of Photography Bradford Young, who won the 2011 Sundance Award in Cinematography for the film, weaves color, texture, and lighting in a way that captures the nuances of the Fort Green, Brooklyn locale and deepens the emotional journey of main character Alike, played beautifully by Adepero Oduye. Young states, “Dee is such a courageous director and is uninterested in collaborating with artists who aren't willing to take risks the way she is.”
Currently filming on location in Sri Lanka, Young and I caught up online to discuss his collaboration with Rees, the visual style for the film, his aesthetic, and what’s next for him.
Can you give some insight into the process of creating the visual aesthetic of "Pariah" with Dee Rees? What were some of the highlights of your collaboration, in terms of creating images for her story, during pre-production and production?
Dee, Nekisa, and I are kindred spirits, so there's a lot of intuitive collaborative energy when we're working together. Somehow, without any real discussion beforehand, we knew that "Paris is Burning" was going to be a significant visual reference for "Pariah." Paul Gibson's camera work is amazing but Jennie Livingston opened the floodgates so that Paul could thrive in a world already colored by charismatic young people; a world and a film colored with glitter and pain. We weren't about notions of "real time" so we became mainly concerned with levels of impressionism in our visual style. Basically, how far could we go with coloring characters and spaces before it started to become distracting and take away from the narrative?
It was a fine line to straddle so we had to dogmatically agree about every bit of nuance given to the design of the film. I think our collaborative process is about balance, and courage. Dee is such a courageous director and is uninterested in collaborating with artists who aren't willing to take risks the way she is. If Dee said, "Hey Brad, lets try red in this scene," I knew I had to find the reddest gel imaginable to man. And when I couldn't find that red, I stacked lavender on top of the red I did have and that’s how we found a "color in between" as Dee would say. Some of the blue and cyan used to paint Alike are about her being subterranean. The pink is about her virtues, and her innocence but it's also about her underdevelopment as a young woman, so when she strips that away we're left looking at a newborn woman sitting in a pool of neutral (white) light. And this neutrality signifies the beginning of a new journey, a journey painted in new self-authorizing colors. Early on in our process, Dee kept building on the idea that Alike was a chameleon; a young woman who constantly changes her physiological color to fit her current time and space.
In the film, we are introduced to the main character Alike during a very personal transition in her life. How did her character arc affect the way she was framed visually?
We always thought it was important for us to create some level of separation, optically that is, between Alike and the world that surrounds her. It’s straightforward really; keep Alike from looking the audience in the eye, so we shot her in profile until she told us she was ready to face the world. At that moment, the camera was invited to shift in front of her and we followed her newfound liberty to the end.
There is a scene near the beginning of the film where Alike eats dinner with her family in low light, and we’re given access into their familial dynamics and humor, as well as an eerie narrative foreshadowing. Can you talk about the camera movement and framing in this scene and what you hoped to convey with it?
That scene is about normalcy. It’s a completely normal family moment being observed by a completely naive camera. In lieu of what we were trying to do with color throughout the rest of the film, we decided that scene needed to be about something more subtle and revealing of the characters. The idea was that the camera would be totally tethered to the actors. Definitely jazzy, in a way. I was searching and drifting through the scene trying find bits of information as actors were throwing subtle notes at one another. It’s all about discovery.
What were some of your concerns or motivations around lighting different scenes in the film? Was there a preference for natural light, and if so, why?
I've always said that I find film lighting technology to be a bit obtrusive in creating a space where actors and the directors can work in real harmony. Especially for collaborators who are working under tough monetary constraints, one has to be very strategic and very liberated about how one uses light. I think it’s a DP's duty to help create a space where all can stay invested emotionally. As a cinematographer, I’m intrigued by the idea of lighting space and letting bodies fluctuate, and oscillate through that light. For "Pariah," I had to workshop a new idea that was very much concerned with lighting bodies equally, and more interpretively. For Dee and I, color was also one of our ways of building the pathology of characters. It was our way of giving refuge to characters that needed retreat. I would say more but as Leslie Hewitt always tells me, "Don’t give away all your DNA."
There’s an ongoing cinematic discourse, championed by cinematographer/ film critic Arthur Jafa and other black filmmakers, about how to light and frame black people, including particular film stocks that work best with their skin tones. Does this discourse have any influence on how you worked with rendering images for "Pariah"? Do those concerns inform your aesthetic as a whole, when working with actors of color?
Let me first start off by saying that it’s an amazing honor to be able to call AJ (Arthur Jafa) my teacher but also one of my very best friends. Every frame and every light used to capture black bodies in film-time is a continuum of ideas AJ and Malik Sayeed have been developing for decades. "Pariah" is a big homage to those brothers and all they've workshopped that has become culture. It would be impossible for me not do my due diligence when lighting black bodies because it’s part of that ethos, my ethos.
We all studied under Haile Gerima and he made us conscious of the vast landscape of referential black art and culture that we could access in our image making journeys. When you're referencing Ethiopian Orthodox church paintings, Dravidian Art, Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava, Chris Ofili, Leslie Hewitt, Hank Thomas Willis, and Nollywood all in the same discussion, it's hard to imagine doing anything without a certain level of intent. These references are a testament to how relentless a moving image could be when its inoculated with culture. And if we did anything less than what’s been given to us by Haile, he and the community would kick our ass. These are the factors that make us comrades in arms trying to make the image sustain a certain gravity and depth.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect next from you?
I’m currently in Sri Lanka shooting Khyentse Norbu's new film " Vara: The Boon." I also just wrapped on Andrew Dosunmu's new film "Ma George" which I’m also very excited about. My collaboration with Ava DuVernay, "Middle of Nowhere," is in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Ava and I are really excited about the project. And her editor Spencer Averick is an amazingly talented cat, a magician. Keep your eye on him!
Leslie Hewitt and I have been collaborating on a set of installations for the last two years. Our first was titled "Untiltled (Levels)," which was loosely based on Claude Brown's "Manchild and the Promise Land." All of it was shot in Harlem. The amazing Rashida Bumbray and The Kitchen were our partners for that. And our second installation "Untitled (Structures)," is inspired and counter-pointed by a set of "Civil Rights" photographs and significant pieces of Black architecture. We've been shooting throughout the year in Memphis and Chicago. We're also excited to be in partnership with Karin Chein ("The Exploding Girl," "Circumstance") who is producing the piece for us, along with The Menil in Houston, the MCA in Chicago, the Des Moines Art Center, and the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Watch a trailer for "Pariah" below, and in celebration of its 5th year in release, check it out on Netflix:
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She has written for VICE, The Los Angeles Times, and Bitch Media. She is currently preparing to direct her first feature film, "Jinn."