THE EYE OF THE STORM
By Al Shaw Ki
Bradford Young is a maverick. The anatomy of the 37 year old cinematographer’s career seems to be just as, if not more intriguing and nomadic as the films he’s worked on. For Young, his life mirrors a sincere resemblance to the caliber of his work. Most recently, Young was behind the lens on the biopic feature film Selma which depicts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the brave thousands who participated in the tragic and triumphant marches for civil rights in Alabama. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma has received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, but won for Original Song “Glory” despite losing three Golden Globe Award nominations including best drama, best actor for David Oyelowo, and DuVernay for best director.
In addition to Selma, the award-winning Young has held down the camera for several groundbreaking and pressure pushing films including A Most Violent Year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Mother of George, Restless City, and Pariah. It’s no coincidence that he was the director of photography for DuVernay’s I Will Follow in 2010 and 2012’s Sundance award-winning indie feature, Middle of Nowhere starring Selma’s David Oyelowo. I caught up with Young on the afternoon following the final color correction and preceding an early unfinished New York press screening of Selma and asked what inspired his choice of films with such racy and controversial themes of justice thread throughout. “This is my responsibility. I’m not going to shoot a film like Zoolander 2 because it doesn’t speak to me. It’s about where my heart is.” Young confesses.
Perhaps he feels compelled because he is a third generation God-descendent of Paul Robeson’s ancestral bloodline. Raised and injected with a tribal core of highly cultured, intellectual, influential and upward thinking African American family, Young was connected to African ancestry and radicalized into the belief of social justice and betterment at an early age.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Young was raised by a family of morticians. Young reflects on the surreal days of his youth and how it has shaped his creative sensibilities. “My great grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins were all morticians. I spent the first 15 years of my life in that world. It was a very encouraging world. My family was very political. The black middle class… It was bitter-sweet. My grandparents held it down. They were race conscious people. My grandfather was a no-nonsense man, but very conservative who was concerned about black folk’s economic wellbeing. My cousins, who were the Godchildren of Paul Robeson, were very political, including my Uncle Sonny who was one the founding members of the New York December 12th movement.” He explains.
Young also credits the huge influence of hip hop while growing up in a small Kentucky town. “Being a lover of hip hop in Louisville, it was all about the west coast vibe. NWA, Too $hort, E-40 and connections to Oakland, was cool, but I didn’t love that stuff. I liked it, but I loved X-Clan and A Tribe Called Quest! You know, I was a ‘Native Tonguer’ in the middle of nowhere! For me, all of that played a role. I mean when Marcus Raboy did the video “Reminisce” for Mary J. Blige, it really hit me hard. It was so warm. It reminded me of my life. Then when Hype and Malik started making videos they were blowing my mind! I was like, we can do this!” He laughs going down memory lane.
As he continues, I’m reminded of the rough title inspired for this editorial, prior to our conversation, “The Naked Eye of the Dark Knight”, which I will touch upon later. Ironically, with every description, I began to understand how and why Young grew his tolerance for the dark side and was able to effectively transpose the energy of such a morbid, yet rich and cultural inheritance into the paradigm of his filmmaking. Black morticians inspired by civil rights and the black arts movement is a more than a paradox, it’s a movie all to itself.
Young recalls the seduction of the funeral home and the symmetry of the arrangements. The feelings, flowers, colors, casket designs, carpets and chairs had a lasting, profound effect on his point of view. Young insists that influence of his family, especially his grandmother and the nature of a mortician’s journey ultimately led to him becoming a filmmaker.
“What am I trying to say with this frame? What is good lighting? I’ve always been a viewer of art, and always been conscious of it from an early age. I’ve always loved it but the funeral home helped me explore lighting, colors, textures and shapes. I know that smell, I know those hallways so well. My grandmother laid the place out with African art, sculptures and statues. There was this incredible ornate brass fountain with pictures of all of my ancestors surrounding it. There were a bunch of parlors with these two main hallways that led to the chapel. The casket, carpet, parlor doors and the chairs had to be lined up perfectly.” Young reminisces. Growing up in a funeral home, he soon realized that he was basically constructing frames within a frame. “If you look at films like A Most Violent Year or Mother of George, we were exploring symmetry in a particular way. I’m attracted to that. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Kubrick. He was dealing with symmetry in a cultural way, not just to-make-it-look-good-way. It’s about projecting the future into the present. It’s about the pathology. Where are we going? Where are we headed?” Young recounts.
Like Kubrick, Young has an uncanny gift of utilizing natural light with minimal lighting effects, and using the camera as his paint brush. An obsession for the juxtaposition of dark or “black” space prompts Young on a quest for a distinctive and textured realism that pops, bringing the audience emotionally closer. He emphasizes color variances to match the performance, skin tone and mood. This distinct style is why I give Young the honorable title of “The Dark Knight”, not simply due to his race or the cultural significances of his work. He adds, “I’m trying to find the truthfulness in the image. I don’t want it to be a manufactured moment. With Mother of George, there were even moments where we turned off the lights.” Young proves he is an invested storyteller that wants to share his vision with masterful directors to create real conversations, regardless of color or race.
“I knew I couldn’t be a stupid person. My Grandfather would kick my ass!” Young laughs. “I knew once I took this journey into film, I would try to make sure that I was saying something in whatever I was doing. I really feel that it’s my duty. If I’m not going to represent, I might as well do nothing. I feel I have so many people to answer to.”
Young has indeed answered the call. With a stable of colorful, dangerously provocative films completed in the past 7 years, he’s sure to make Uncle Robeson, Uncle Sonny and Malcolm X proud. Toasting his grandparents for their heavy influence of renaissance, education, music and culture, he remembers that they were innately immersed in the arts. Ancestral lineage ranges from his grandparents singing, to his grandmother playing the organ and various musical family members. Young’s grandmother was also an English high school teacher in Louisville who, in fact, taught Muhammad Ali. His grandfather moonlighted as a part-time mail carrier in addition to running the funeral home. These are the ancestral ties that bind the messaging behind Bradford Young’s vision. “Well, other than being possessed by my ancestors, I can’t explain it.” Bradford proudly jokes and consistently refers to these ancestral DNA jewels as “nuggets”.
After his mother passed away in 1993, Young moved to Chicago to live with his father during his last year of high school. In a search for intrinsic family ties, he soon migrated to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University in 1995. It is there where he made his most rewarding connections and alliances as well as his entry into film.
Unaware that all his favorite icons including Arthur Jafa, Malik Sayeed, and Ernest Dickerson attended Howard, he gravitated to the film scene instantly. Arthur Jafa’s work on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust left a lasting impression on Young. Nonetheless, he soon managed to make all of their acquaintances, and established them as honorary mentors, especially Arthur and Malik. “Among them all, the common denominator was Haile Gerima.” Young affirms. Gerima is a revered filmmaker and film professor who has been teaching at Howard since 1975 and best known for his riveting African diasporic films, Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993), as well as the Sankofa bookstore in D.C. It’s of no coincidence that The Washington Post hails Howard University as the incubator for cinematographers, stating that “Howard, best known for its law and medical schools, has become an incubator for people whose work with lighting, lenses, camera movement, film stocks and visual textures has profoundly influenced contemporary cinematic grammar.”
D.C. is where Young made the invaluable friendship and tutelage of Gerima which sparked the sober rocketship career launch. Young insists that it was also in D.C. where he developed his musical taste for jazz and soul music fused with the likes of go-go and influences of Terry Callier who Young describes as “a black-bohemian, pan-African, black nationalist, guitarist-musician that blew me away. That happened to me in D.C. The first time I heard John Coltrane’s Interstellar was in D.C., in Howard University library. The first time I saw the video of James Baldwin’s funeral with all of those African musicians playing was at Howard. The first time I saw Baldwin wearing a Dashiki was at Howard. The first time I saw the Malcolm X – James Baldwin debate was at Howard. D.C. for me is the Mecca. My wife and I met here, and she loves D.C. too. I went to New York with a purpose to work more, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay there. I love D.C. because it’s a southern town. I’m most productive here. I’m happy to be raising my son here. I got family here in D.C. The gentrification is vicious here, but I got Haile, I got Howard, and I got some nuggets that I can plug into.”
Young has an introspective charm and quality of assurance that can probably tame the most neurotic of Hollywood media moguls. He owns a spiritual sense of love and pride strong enough for Sade and hyper-particular about the projects he signs on to. He paints visceral images on the lens like free jazz improvisation. Vision is heartfelt and first on the list when it comes to how he approaches life, family and his career. To Young, it all equates as one picture, and pieces of the same whole. Residing in D.C., Young claims his southern ties and roots help him stay grounded in this bombastic world as a husband and father. “I never wanted to leave Kentucky. I just wanted to grow.” Young admits.
In addition to his Hollywood reels of critically acclaimed film work, Young has also contributed works for a recent installation at a Weeksville exhibition in Brooklyn, New York, entitled Bynum Cutler. Bynum Cutler was inspired by an August Wilson poem about a journeyman, named Bynum Cutler, a shaper of iron wood. In the tri-paneled film installation presented at Bethel Tabernacle AME Church in Crown Heights, Young vividly captures the nomadic nature of man, the personal quests of regional satisfaction and ghosts of black utopia within community building. Essentially, it represents a connection and quest for betterment and the non-acceptance of the status-quo in our dangerously free society. But for the passionate Young, it ultimately represents a man practicing his craft when he’s not working on a film or Ketel One commercials with Derek Cianfrance.
As we reach into the scope of his journey, I ran down a time capsule of the films Young has worked on and asked him to say the first word, phrase or emotion that comes to mind with the experience.
TAON: White Lies, Black Sheep – 2007 (Directed by James Spooner)
TAON: Pariah – 2011 (Directed by Dee Rees)
YOUNG: “Coming of Age”
TAON: Restless City – 2011 (Directed by Andrew Dosumnu)
YOUNG: “Humility. Student. Mentorship. Spirituality. Dosumno made me work!”
TAON: Middle Of Nowhere – 2012 (Ava Duvernay)
YOUNG: “Friendship. Turning of a New Leaf. Friendship. Strategy.”
TAON: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – 2013 (David Lowery)
YOUNG: “Mindfulness. Spritual.”
TAON: Mother Of George (Directed by Andrew Dosumnu)
YOUNG: “Dreams. Wisdom. More.”
TAON: Vara: A Blessing (Directed by Khyentse Norbu)
YOUNG: “Devotional. God.”
TAON: A Most Violent Year (Directed by J.C. Chandor)
YOUNG: “Bricks. Solid. Structural. Anatomy.”
TAON: Selma (Directed by Ava DuVernay)
YOUNG: “A Hard Shoot. Growth. Compromise. Forged In The Fire. Free Jazz! Like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra!”
Although Bradford Young is one of the most highly sought after cinematographers in the country, he doesn’t get drunk on fumes of star power. He acknowledges that everything is in divine order and is sober from the intoxication of vanity. A film-painter inspired by great socialist movements and WPA era art, Young credits to his industry sobriety to his mentors and his family. “I’m actually repulsed by it. That’s not my world. That’s not what I choose to focus on. My wife keeps me most sober. Whatever is happening outside, I can’t bring that home. On the other hand, I’m more curious about it as a sociological apparatus-because that’s all it is. I’m intrigued by watching human behavior. We live in a world where fame and star power overrun everything. No matter how corrosive the environment of star power is, there are some great people in the room. I was taught not to be distracted by it, and stay focused on the art. The conversation about how good the photography is lasts for two days. The lasting impression isn’t the conversation. It’s about the work. No one’s going to go back in time and read the reviews on Van Gogh’s painting! No one cares. What people care about is the work.”
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