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Q&A: ‘Selma’ DP Bradford Young on the LBJ Controversy, Being a Black Cinematographer, and ‘A Most Violent Year’

The cinematographer for two of 2014’s most acclaimed films shares his thoughts on filming 1980s New York and 1960s Alabama.

In the cinephile community, there are a handful of cinematographers whose names alone are enough to get folks to see a movie: Roger Deakins, Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki. If 37-year-old Bradford Young isn’t already on that short list, it’s only a matter of time. Having first gained recognition for his work on David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Young had a huge 2014, lensing DuVernay’s Best Picture nominee Selma and J.C. Chandor’s critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year. Young’s a technician and a problem solver, but he’s an artist first and foremost, and he spoke to Grantland about being a black cinematographer, the feeling he tries to convey in his images, and the absurdity of how Selma was received by certain audiences.

Who were some of the artists who influenced you toward going into filmmaking, both growing up and at Howard [University]?

My mentor, my guru in the filmmaking context is a filmmaker named Haile Gerima. Haile’s been at Howard for over 35 years, and he was also a student at UCLA during the L.A. Rebellion times — he was friends with Charles Burnett, they came up together in that very fiercely independent filmmaking context of the early to late 1970s. I came to Howard not initially knowing that I wanted to be part of the filmmaking community, but once I met him and plenty of other students at Howard, I realized that this was something I wanted to do.

Were you artistically inclined, did you feel like you were going to do something —

No, not at all, man. It was a dream that one day I could live the artist’s life, but I grew up in a town, a community, a family that was pretty conservative.1 I come from over a hundred years of morticians. I thought I would just inherit the family business, but it was clear, my family knew I wasn’t going to do that. But I didn’t really know — Howard has produced a lot of great cinematographers: Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed, Arthur Jafa. So there was a good line of cinematographers who had come out of Howard before I was there. The common denominator was Haile. I didn’t know I was going to be a cinematographer, but six or seven years spent studying under him, something finally got lit and I sort of fell into place.


1.

Young grew up in Louisville and moved to Chicago when he was 15.

When you started making films at Howard and when you were trying to make a go of it professionally, how conscious were you of being a black cinematographer versus just being an aspiring professional cinematographer?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s something that, going to Howard and coming from the community that I grew up in, it was hard to separate what I do from who I am — it was virtually impossible. I grew up in a family where there were professional people all around me and they were all creating a bridge between who they are as black people in America and the work that they’re doing in their professional lives. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to separate the two, nor have I had the desire to separate the two — I think they both inform me in a really intense way. It just happens to be that my pedagogy around filmmaking came out of a predominantly African American institution, and the person that I studied under is a black filmmaker. I’m a product of my environment. I’m not seeking to make statements about who I am as a black man in America through my work, but a lot of the images that have inspired me and informed how I see the world have come through the lens of black image-makers. Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, these are all people who have inspired me, because when I was being taught what a good image is or a provocative image is, the references — because of where I went to school and the community I grew up in — were from black folks.

How did you link up with Ava DuVernay for Middle of Nowhere?

We have filmmaking friends in common, and we were both aware of each other’s work before we worked together. Ava reached out when she was doing I Will Follow and I wasn’t available at the time, and she told me that she would come back at some point when she had other projects, and she did. We were able to hook up on Middle of Nowhere. But I’ve known of her work for a long time, and I think it was only a matter of time before we hooked up — we come from the same community of filmmakers.

A Most Violent Year is one of the darkest movies I’ve seen in a long time in terms of how the characters are constantly in shadow, their faces are half-obscured, they’re sitting and having conversations and you see the overhead lights playing on their faces. In that particular context, in the natural setting of New York City and that era and that winter, what were you and J.C. Chandor getting at with those shadows and that darkness?

It’s a city that’s falling apart from the inside out, and from the outside in. You’re dealing with people who had to do a lot with less. I just felt compelled to make the lighting part of that conversation. In the 1980s, if the power was cut out, what would it look like — or if you didn’t have as many lights on as you wanted because you couldn’t afford the lightbulbs. Whatever it may be, I just felt like the world had to have a particular kind of decay to it, a particular absence to it. Something like A Most Violent Year, I was concerned more about lighting space than I was about lighting faces. I just thought the characters couldn’t help determine how the space was going to look or feel, they just had to fall in line. That was what New York City was at the time, and it’s sort of what New York City is now — New York City is a city that runs without a lot of human input, but at the same time it is run by only human input. It’s almost a living thing within its own. With that film, the darkness was a conversation about the absence of certain things. And also, too, to get a certain level of — not suspense, but a certain level of atmosphere, where you realize there’s this unseen thing encroaching on these characters that could pop out at any minute. We wanted to give you just enough to see them, but not enough to actually see them.

It’s funny, because you talk about the city, and the city feels like a character in that movie — the city feels like as much of a person in it as Oscar Isaac’s character or Jessica Chastain’s character. New York is there.

That city is an animal. There’s this one shot where we tilt down from the New York City skyline, and you see the police and Abel and those guys standing in that snowfield, the city looks like teeth, it just looks like a monster. We were just trying to figure out how do we create these tableaus of decay, and the city had to be this living thing, it had to be this thing that’s just always sitting on top of you. There’s enough to argue that every shadow that you see in the film is a shadow created by a piece of architecture: It’s created by buildings, it’s created by man’s desire to win. That’s what that film’s about, it’s about Abel trying to win, not to any expense but still, at any expense. You said it, that film is just about people living inside a living thing; this beast, this untamed animal.

Let’s talk about Selma a bit. One of the things about Selma’s cinematography that really struck me was the framing. You take David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., and you put him in the bottom of the shot, or the bottom corner of the shot. I’m thinking specifically of the church, when he looks up and looks at the lens and the cross is behind him. He always seems almost overwhelmed by the setting and the background and the history around him. What was your thinking with shooting the movie that way, where the framing of characters plays such a role?

First and foremost, Ava really wanted to make the anti-biopic. [Biopics] are of great value, and I’ve watched a lot of them, and some of them I’ve enjoyed, but I do feel like there’s a template to how we see those, how they’re conceived. We were just trying our hardest to — we’re trying to decolonize our minds from that continuous American biopic trope. I think 12 Years a Slave did it successfully. Steve [McQueen] had his own attempt at it and we were trying to have our attempt at it, where we wanted to see that world from a more oblique angle, literally and figuratively. It needed to be more oblique, it needed to be more involved. We didn’t want to be spectators of our history, we wanted to be participants of our history. Not everybody gets the same angle or point of view or field of view on history, and so, you can imagine how many people have very obscure, oblique angles of Martin Luther King through heads or from behind or from the side. That’s their only notion and only memory of seeing him. We just wanted to make it very pedestrian, we wanted it to be from the ground. We wanted it to not be so precise and perfect. And there are moments where it is, where it’s about making movies, about making frames, and then there are moments where we strip all that down and take the time and take the prerogative to make a statement about the moment. Again, there wasn’t any sort of rule, but it was about “let’s get as many interesting angles as possible and see if we can create a grammar around that.” Obviously, Ava and Spencer [Averick, the film’s editor] did that in the cutting room.

There’s one shot that I still think about, which is when the sheriff’s men take down Annie Lee Cooper and the camera follows her to the ground. What were you and Ava going for with that shot?

Ava was really clear that she wanted to highlight moments of brutality during the struggle, and how violence against the black body was a real important thing to talk about and show. Because we’re filmmakers, it’s something that we have to show, so what we tried to do was figure out the best way to map brutality against the body in a filmmaking context. We didn’t overly challenge ourselves because there was no money to do it in a visual-effects way, and there was no time to have a whole day where you just spend on that kind of stuff. What we did was dig out some old filmmaking tricks — if you slow the camera down, you’re able to map the human body in a real intricate way. If you shoot something at a thousand frames per second, you’ve got a lot more frames to work with than if you shoot it at 24. We just went through all the vignettes in the film, all the moments in the film where there are these heightened levels of violence against the body, and we tried to focus a particular way of seeing them that would be different from everything else you see in the film. You see it with the Annie Lee Cooper takedown, you see it with the Jimmie Lee shooting, you see it with the murder of Pastor Reeb in the street when he gets kicked in the face, you see it with the four little girls. Each one of those vignettes, we made a decision to shoot it at a particular frame rate, with particular tools that you could actually see, possibly.

We just felt like it was important to show, because at some point Americans have to start having a certain level of empathy with how much people who engage themselves with struggle go through, how much they give up. We are here because a lot of people really did shed blood. That’s not a euphemism, that’s real, that’s real stuff — a lot of people shed blood so that we could be on the phone right now, having this conversation. It’s just a reminder that we don’t know our history. Americans do not know their history. We are good practitioners of erasure. I think what filmmakers and artists are able to do is make people see themselves. We can do it in subtle ways and we can do it in really heightened, very calculated, extremely visual ways, and that’s what that really was.

So Selma was the victim of this absurd smear campaign that I don’t even want to harp on. But I did want to ask if you thought that the way audiences and critics receive movies these days, is there too much focus on the metanarrative and the —

I didn’t mean to cut you off, but I know what you’re asking. Listen: Filmmaking isn’t considered an art form in America, it’s considered a business first and foremost. Those who are artists, who get a chance to say something in the context of a business outfit, are the lucky ones, and they are far and few between. There are not a lot of us who can say we’re artists working in the film context. Basically, all this reminds us is that we’ve got to know who we are, we’ve got to remember who we are, and we’ve got to know that we come from culture and we come from stories, and stories are not about fact. Storytelling is the oldest art form in the world, and what it consists of is allegory and mythology. Stories were never sanctioned to be real, that’s not why we do what we do. If that was the case, we’d be documentary filmmakers. What we’re here to do is put our lens on a particular moment. With something like Selma, Ava’s putting her lens on a particular moment in history. It’s not going to be for everybody, and that’s also what folks got to understand too. It’s not for everybody’s consumption, and the fact that somebody has a problem with the particular lens on the story isn’t a stain on the film — it’s what we should be doing with good art, which is have a conversation.

But this is the thing: Within our vocal culture, we haven’t developed ways of having sober analysis around art. You know what I mean? That whole conversation demonstrated that we’re not having sober, interesting, calculated conversations around the relevancy of art in our everyday survival, the relevancy of art to us as human beings. That conversation and that argument is silly on many levels. I think that’s how we have to look at it. Trying to take away someone’s ability to win an award — that’s not an analysis, that’s not an argument, that’s not a conversation.

American audiences have been subjected to historical inaccuracies in American movies since Birth of a Nation. Let’s not pretend that this one film that only gets made every other two decades is going to hurt us in any way. What it should do is continue the conversation about why art is important and what its purpose is. And as Ava says, her purpose is not to preserve the legacy of LBJ. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here as storytellers.