The photographs of young black men are startling in their contrasts: a slave in chains, a professor in a suit; a body dangling from a lynch mob’s rope, a musician with a violin. The images illuminate a nation’s racial divide and how African Americans viewed themselves against the distorting gaze of caricature and prejudice.
“Through a Lens Darkly,” a documentary directed by Thomas Allen Harris, is essentially a glimpse at two scrapbooks — one chronicled by African American photographers, the other by a country unsettled by racist attitudes that persist today. When it comes to race, whether in the old Jim Crow South or the echo chamber of social media, one person’s image of truth can be another’s degradation.
Harris’ film is a family and cultural journey across disturbing fault lines. It is a moving and repelling catalog with the underlying question: When you look into the mirror, whom do you see? Harris’ grandfather lifted a camera and posed his family every chance he could to counter the discrimination and stereotypes outside his Bronx home. A larger mosaic was pieced together by a string of creative black photographers such as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, whose images inspired African American artists and forced a reexamination of racial perceptions.
There is a “war of images within the American family album,” Harris says in the film, which opens Nov. 14 in Los Angeles. In an interview, he spoke of the “double consciousness” of expectation and identity that African Americans face, notably young black men who are often portrayed as criminals. During a recent class reunion he attended at Harvard, Harris said, many black alumni had stories of being “stopped by the police. These are people with PhDs.”
Suspicion and mistrust resonate and statistics on crime, education and income have been argued over and politicized. Despite a black president and popular black athletes, entertainers and scholars, America’s notions of racial equality remain skewed by an unreconciled past. In an era of Snapchat, holograms and selfies, images are at once everywhere and evaporating, amplifying our differences while evoking only superficial connection.
The pictures and iconography in “Through a Lens Darkly” — Harris combed through 20,000 images — are an eerie trip into the American psyche. They show the raised scars on a slave’s whipped back, pamphlets advertising black children as alligator bait and the battered face of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 after apparently flirting with a white woman. Running parallel to that legacy was the other black experience: uniformed Civil War soldiers, park strolls, parasols, businessmen, legislators, houses of middle-class prosperity.
The successful black narrative was for generations largely relegated to subtext. “Every negro boy and every negro girl born in this country until this present moment,” the film quotes writer James Baldwin as saying in 1963, “undergo the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social … some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning.”
Harris said he assembled the photographs — some are lingered over, others appear and reappear to sharpen context and meaning — “so one sees the same image in a new way. In a family scrapbook, we see a picture one way but years later we might see something different.”
The photographs in “Darkly” can “still cause pain, in no small part because the attitudes they reflect don’t entirely belong to the past,” critic A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times. “At times, Mr. Harris’s voice-over narration veers into academic abstraction or lyrical emotionalism in ways that undercut the eloquence of the images, but overall he is a wise and passionate guide to an inexhaustibly fascinating subject.”
Harris has been looking through the lens of discrimination for years. He was raised in New York and Tanzania and has made a number of films about race, including the award-winning documentary “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela,” which followed the life of his stepfather and other South Africans who fled apartheid and raised support for the African National Congress. For “Darkly,” Harris drew on photographer and historian Deborah Willis and her book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.”
“Black photographers gave us a different image of ourselves, and those images became a sanctuary. This is who we are,” said Harris. “We might be powerless to change the outside images against us, but we can change those images within our space.... It was a ritual to sit for my grandfather in a studio that was his living room. He gave us a sense of self-worth.”
Defining image — the magic of identity — was central to the strategy of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, writer and abolitionist leader. Legs crossed and posing in a suit, Douglass, one of the most photographed people of the 19th century, countered stereotypes with professorial dignity. Harris’ film also cites the move by human rights leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois to circumvent America’s racist images by supporting an exhibition in Paris in 1900 that showed the progress blacks had made since the end of slavery.
One of the most influential photographers of his generation was Gordon Parks, who worked for Life magazine. He captured the poverty, happiness, despair, isolation and stoicism of everyday African Americans as well as defining images of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. He died at 93 in 2006 and appears in a clip in Harris’ film, saying that through his pictures he sought to “expose something to the public that I thought was being hidden.”
“He opened the door for many of us,” Willis, a professor at New York University, said of Parks. “He inspired me to become a photographer.” She added that there was a strong black press during the Civil Rights era “that told a story representative of black culture. But black photographers were frustrated that they couldn’t break out of this world into the mainstream. Gordon Parks did.”
One of the most striking images in the film is “Yo Mama’s Pieta,” a photograph by Renee Cox depicting a young, naked black man draped in the arms of a black woman. The picture evokes a sense of pain, loss, bewilderment and injustice that has stretched from the days of slavery to the time of the video game in which, said Willis, “black men are seen as prey or preyed upon.”
The challenge for popular media, said Harris, is to move beyond stereotype. “It is how one is constructed in a narrative in relation to being a citizen, in relation to being human,” he said. “How do we see one another in our entirety?”