Even if you’re not prone to appreciating the nuances of cinematography, from the first, striking scenes of Pariah, you’re tempted to reach for your smartphone to look up the name of the DP.
Instead of the predictable crane shot down into Brooklyn that finds Alike (pronounced Uh-LEE-kay), the 17 year-old, lesbian protagonist of this coming-of-age/coming out story, the first shots are incredibly tight. The camera crawls almost oppressively over her back and shoulders and up the side of her face. There is a nearly reptilian feel, though not cold-blooded.
It makes you wonder, “Who shot this?” and the answer is, Bradford Young, a 34 year-old rising indie star who also shot the 2007 short film version of Pariah for writer-director, Dee Rees, and has been her DP since. Young also shot the independent films, Mississippi Damned, about three black children growing up in poor, rural Mississippi; and Entre Nos, about a Columbian immigrant family in Queens.
Those initial tight shots of Alike continue deeply into the film, uncomfortably prying, never straight on, creating what Young calls, “a language of discovery.”
“Dee likes to push the image to its limit,” Young says. “She likes to live at the threshold where if you go either way, it might fall apart. She’s adventurous and confident in herself, so you have to bring that spirit too.”
Young shot the movie on Kodak 5260 film for its contrasts, and used an Arricam Lt camera because nearly all the work was hand held; 65 millimeter lenses were the workhorses, he says.
Owing in part to Rees’s desire to work intimately, the crew was “insanely small,” Young says. “Dee does not want a lot of stuff or people around. She wants the actors to be totally in their world,” Young says. His team was usually just gaffer T.J. Alston and key grip Christopher Koch.
Young shot most of the film using available light, including nighttime scenes in a bedroom using only Christmas lights and an Ikea lamp with a red lampshade.
When I mention the challenge many filmmakers seem to have photographing black actors, and how his work in Pariah seemed a cut above, Young says filming people of color has been a problem in American cinema, but that progress is being made.
“There’s been a gap where not a lot of work has been done to make people of color look (on screen) like we see them in the world,” he says.
He credits the work of first Malik Sayeed (Clockers, He Got Game), then Lol Crawley (who won the Sundance cinematography award for Ballast in 2008), as well as Ernest Dickerson and Spike Lee with advancing the standards.
Young is a graduate of Howard University where his mentor was Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian-born, independent filmmaker (Teza, Bush Mama) who has won numerous international awards. “He challenged us, made us look at the black classics, become students of black art, literature and science,” Young says. “We looked at African art through the centuries… paintings, murals, sculptures. So our references on what skin tone can look like comes from art – Ethiopian church paintings and Nigerian textiles – not from an American cinema context.
Young also credited Beverly Wood, Deluxe Entertainment’s head technical liaison to cinematographers, for support with film and processing issues regarding color and image quality.
When I spoke with Young earlier this month he was getting ready to leave for Sri Lanka where he is now filming Vara the Boon for director Khyntse Norbu (The Cup, Travelers and Magicians), who is a Buddhist monk. The film is a romance filled with magical realism, about two young Indian lovers from different castes. Given the subject matter and the lushness of Sri Lanka, not to mention the 40-day shooting schedule, the experience promises to produce Young’s juiciest film to date.