Set entirely at night, Field Niggas (T/F 2015) takes us to the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem and introduces us to its faces. Not just avoiding but repudiating condescension, director Khalik Allah’s camera, a longtime, welcome presence in the neighborhood, spotlights his subjects in stunningly composed, dignified portraits that are hypnotically woven with street images. The non-synch audio track consists of conversations with and among those faces: dreams, regrets, arguments, affection, observations, opinions. Field Niggas is a mesmerizing viewing experience, that finds its rhythm using field hollers. The title draws from Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, in which he targets the power balance that creates a dangerous wedge between the “house slaves” and the “field slaves.” Khalik Allah’s singular, trenchant film serves as an ardent call to rise above social constructs.
Since True/False, Field Niggas has screened at Sarasota, Maryland and FIDMarseille, where it received a special mention from the Marseille Espérance Jury. This Friday, July 17 at the Metrotech Commons, Rooftop Films is hosting a free screening of Field Niggas. For more information, visit this page. We caught up with Khalik on the phone earlier this week.
T/F: I’ve heard you discuss your history with photography, but I don’t know much about your relationship with movies.
KA: I never was interested in movies. I used to think movies were boring. I was into TV. But my brothers—I’ve got a lot of brothers—they always used to steal the remote and just start watching movies. So I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. I remember studying that when I was kid. I was 9 when that came out.
When I made the decision to start dabbling in films, I went to the library, and whenever I saw the Criterion Collection, I just got that DVD. That’s how I found out about Kurosawa and so many different films. Taxi Driver, everything from Scorsese. I just started following different directors and studying them. Jim Jarmusch, obviously Spike Lee, a bunch of different people. And then when I started studying documentary more, it was Werner Herzog. And the idea that I can make any type of film because all these different directors have their own style, that inspired me.
So this simple library card afforded me an entire education. Then I got Netflix. At one point I wasn’t even working, and I was watching 50 movies a week. I was trying to train my eye. All those Bergman movies and his DP Sven Nykvist. And the Woody Allen films. Studying the DPs behind these films and their ideas, their philosophies, their personal lives, their orientation to light. How Sven Nykvist used to carry a 35mm still camera and photograph the light days before he would shoot a scene just to see what the light would look like at a given point in the day. These guys are scientists. Kurosawa and the movie Rashomon, he used mirrors to light a lot of those scenes, you know? All those people are inspirations, and mentally, I’ve got a store house, a visual library that I think about.
One of my favorite movies is Heat by Michael Mann. I remember I was having an argument one time with a person who was saying that every person in the movie is wearing makeup, and I was like, “Naw, that’s not true.” There are a lot of actors who don’t wear makeup, who keep it real. And I think of Michael Mann and his movies, especially Heat—that shit was 100 percent real. I’m more of a realist with my style of filmmaking. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I want to go into narrative where it’s fictional but it’s done in such a real way. Everything about it is real. Nobody is wearing makeup. People are doing real things. The props are real.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
You mentioned Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Did you watch others? Has your relationship with documentary changed over time?
Obviously Nanook of the North and Robert Flaherty. Stuff I studied because I was told to study those things. I looked into the origins of documentary. Filmmaking started out as documentary, you know? But then a lot of narrative films are also documentaries, like James Toback’s Black and White. The thing I like about James Toback is that he’ll improvise a lot of scenes, which gives his fictional pieces a documentary type of feeling. I studied so much it’s kind of a blur—a big, abstract idea, all these different people and what they did.
Makes you think about how much is going on now that’s not being documented. That in itself is the inspiration to make documentaries. It really comes down to how creative you want to be. I think there’s a whole nother language. I was trying to come up with another language with Field Niggas. Because I could have had that movie talking about the meth labs, drug abuse. More of a cerebral analysis, talking-head type thing, interviewing politicians in the neighborhood. But that’s been done. Another thing that keeps things interesting is creative documentary.
I haven’t seen it, but based on the trailer, I assume your first feature-length documentary, Popa Wu, a 5% Story, is more conventional?
Yes, definitely. A lot of festivals are asking me if Field Niggas is my first film, and in a way, I feel like saying ‘yes’ because it’s the first time I’ve been playing festivals. To me, the Popa Wu film—it took me four years to make, it was like college. That was my bachelor’s degree, that movie. Nothing ever happened with it, no distribution, no film festival plays. I sold it, but I sold it to a niche group of people: the Five Percenters, people who are within that demographic, that type of knowledge, the Five Percent Nation. It was tailored for them, but I actually wanted it to go beyond that and be a much bigger thing. I put four years into that project, and I put less than three months into Field Niggas. And Field Niggas went forty times further. But that film set me up. It was an education, my training.
You say three months, but it wouldn’t exist had you not spent years hanging out in this part of Harlem. I read that when you first started shooting in the neighborhood, there was some resistance. I’m wondering if you could walk me through the very first night.
Well, the first time I came, there was no negative experience. It was in the daytime. I was in and out. It wasn’t like I was lingering on the corner, taking pictures like I do now. I didn’t know that was going to be the focal point for me.
Spring 2011, I’m out there, I’m shooting. I see a crackhead with a bald head, it’s a woman, and she had a pacifier around her neck, hanging like a necklace. She asked me for a dollar, and I said “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you a dollar. Just let me take a picture of you.” And she was giving me the middle finger in the picture, and I said, “Yeah, yeah that’s good. Keep giving me the middle finger, but put the pacifier in your mouth.” She put the pacifier in her mouth, she’s giving me the middle finger, and all I hear is this brother behind me say, “Yo, brother, we don’t want to be seen like that! We don’t want to be seen like that!” So I start addressing him. “I’m out here as a photographer. I’m documenting the positive, the negative and the neutral.” I kind of engage him. We go back and forth for a while. He was an MTA officer. He had his name tag on, so I just kept calling him by his name. “Yeah, Mike”—his name was Mike—”Yeah, Mike, I’m a documentarian, I’m filming 360 degrees.”
Whenever there’s an argument in the streets in Harlem, people just congregate around it and start instigating. I just stepped off. I just said, “Peace!” There was another person listening, an older Muslim guy. Later that night I came back. It wasn’t even dark yet. Me and that Muslim guy were talking. He said, “Yeah, I heard what you were saying, man. I think it’s positive. I think it’s positive that you are a photographer, there’s truth to be documented.” So I took that and I left that night.
Fast forward. I went to other places and kept shooting downtown Manhattan. I would just come back sporadically to shoot 125th and Lex. But when I developed that film, and I’d seen that picture of that woman, the crackhead with the pacifier and the middle finger. I was like, “Yeah man, I’ve got to shoot. There’s a lot of light on this corner for me to start working with.”
So fast forward now to November 21, 2011. At 11pm, I drove to the city, parked in the Lower East Side. I took the train all night. I took the train to 125th and Lex. At 2am, I walk into a congregation of crackheads and took a shot. And there was a shot of Frenchie—that was the first night that I meant Frenchie. And basically I overcranked the film in the camera, and now the film is broken in the camera. And I still had a pocketful of film. I wanted to go shoot all night, so I needed a darkroom to take the film out without exposing it and ruining it. I was so serious, I was about to hop on the train tracks just to use the darkness. But when I was contemplating, I saw a woman coming out of the janitor’s closet, and I just told her, “I’m a film student at NYU, I need to use the janitor’s closet for the darkness.”
Yeah, I was lying to her (laughs) I basically went in there, took off my coat, put the camera in there and used it as a dark bag. Then I was able to reload and keep shooting. But as soon as I got home that morning, I was worried the film was ruined. So I just developed it, and I see these pictures of Frenchie, and I was like “Damn, that’s it. This is my corner.” That night just consecrated it. This is where I’m going to shoot.
Watching your films back-to-back, you see the growth. In “Urban Rashomon,” you buy Frenchie some K2 and then regret it after he acts up in a corner store. At the beginning of your next film, “Antonyms of Beauty,” you ask Frenchie about that night, and he says he was ‘acting’ for you. Can you talk about that idea of performance?
In Frenchie’s case, he considered his life a performance. Frenchie got hit by a train and survived it. I asked him about it afterwards, and he said he was just acting. Nobody was there filming. Nobody was there to photograph it. I wasn’t there. But he said, “I was just acting.” He was in the hospital, he broke his pelvis. His foot was injured ever since. With me and him, that day, he probably would turn it up a little more for the camera. Maybe, potentially. But the stories I hear— you know, Frenchie’s dead now—but the stories I was hearing about what he was doing in my absence were more interesting than a lot of the stuff when I was there taking photographs of him. He’s a deep soul. He’s a deep, deep, deep person, and I feel like we were destined to come together for this film project. There was an exchange of light and mental energy between Frenchie and I throughout this whole of process of “Urban Rashomon,” “Antonyms of Beauty,” those times.
With K2, I felt guilty afterwards. He asked me for it, and I told him I want to take a few of photographs. So my concept was, “OK, I’m taking some of his time, at least let me give something to him that he wants.” And that’s also going to make the work that much more interesting. And then I’m going to have a story that much more interesting based on all this. So I go ahead and buy him the K2, but when he started foaming from the mouth and rolling on the ground in the corner store, then I felt bad about that. And I told myself I wouldn’t do that again. But the next time I see him in person, he was smoking K2 anyway. I see him laying down on the ground smoking some K2, acting kind of normal, so I just started questioning him. “Naw, naw, naw I was acting.” Then I was seeing if he could control himself off of it. And again, we were spending time together. He was giving me a lot—answering my questions, giving his time to do this photography project and working as a subject. I was like, “Yo, here, I’m a scientist. I deal with experiments. Here, you’re a grown man.” He was fifty some odd years. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt good about it. It was just making it more interesting.
Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to make Field Niggas without those two preceding films. And K2 has been a piece of all of them, from “Urban Rashomon” to “Antonyms of Beauty” to Field Niggas, K2 is present. And right now it’s still there.
So it’s still legal?
The last I’ve heard on the law—and the law is constantly changing around K2, which has so many different names—is that it’s legal to sell. It’s legal for a person to buy it at the corner store, but it’s illegal person for that person to smoke it in public on the streets. That kind of contradiction in the law is very bad because these people don’t have homes. They don’t really leave that corner, so they’re going to smoke it in public, and that’s grounds to get arrested or grounds for a citation. And you don’t show up in court, now there’s a warrant issued for their arrest. And these aren’t even criminals, and now they’re being put through the system just for smoking a substance that was legal for them to buy. It’s just real disgusting when you really look at it. I look at it as a gentrification ploy to try to move people off that point in Harlem. Because 125th and Lex is the last frontier.
You’re still shooting out there?
Yeah, it’s very interesting. A lot of people say, “Yo, Khalik, are you going to leave 125th and Lex? You going to go do another project?” But if people look at what I’ve been doing, it’s staying within the same environment but elevating it. Elevating my perception of it. So first, I was taking stills, then I made a documentary. Now I want to make a feature film. Right in the same place. That for me is a way to keep interested. I continue to photograph the area because photography is how I build my energy up. Photography is like the mulch of the movie. Definitely for Field Niggas. That’s why I tried to simulate the aesthetic of my photography in the movie.
Do you see yourself continuing to use your voice in such a prominent way?
I actually see it coming less and less. I think that ultimately the project will dictate that, how I feel about the project. Growing up, the path that I went through was the Five Percent Nation. I’ll probably keep a lot of knowledge in there, a lot of myself. But the way we as Five Percenters look at Islam—it came from the Nation of Islam, and then a man named Father Allah gave it to the kids in the streets. Those were the young Five Percenters. It was still considered Islam but as a culture, not as a religion. As a way of life. And ISLAM, the acronym, was “I Stimulate Life and Matter” or “I Stimulate Life Around Me.” That’s how we always broke it down. So when I’m in my movies and I’m talking, I’m just trying to stimulate different things. In Field Niggas, I’m asking people on drugs, “What do you think happens when you die?” The big questions of life, asking that to someone you wouldn’t have asked. It’s a form of stimulating them. But in Field Niggas’’ case, I tried to cut out a lot of my questions, but then there wasn’t enough context. You would just hear the person’s answer, and a lot of the heart was missing from it. You had to feel me, to know where I was coming from. It was more compassionate. So it was good there. But it wouldn’t be good everywhere (laughs).
I recently watched a rough cut of this Mexican documentary. The director is filming in a Canadian park where a community of Aboriginals lives. They’re frequently drunk on camera, and they’re expressing a lot of frustrations with the government and with society. Anyway, in the opening minutes, the director says something about his opposition to ‘empathy.’ He thinks that’s the wrong way to approach people. In this case, he points out that he grew up in Mexico, and he is in no way capable of understanding the pain his Canadian subjects are feeling. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that, about this idea of empathy.
Empathy has two different manifestations. The way that I use it is not to join in suffering and thus lighten the burden. My form of empathy is to tell them that they’re innocent, that they can’t be hurt. That regardless, whatever the body or the ego is going through, they’re still invulnerable. So I’m not going to share in a suffering that I don’t even believe exists. I can look at them in what the world would consider suffering, in what the world would consider misery, and still see the light there and still see beauty there.
But if I was going there, “Oh, I feel so bad for you, what happened with your mom and dad when you were little? What happened? What brought you to the streets? Why are you strung out on drugs? Oh, I feel so bad.” That’s corny. That type of shit—that’s the Christian Children’s Fund. That’s a 30-second PSA on TV. That’s nothing. What I was trying to do, and what I feel I’m continuing to do in my documentary work, is speak to the people who usually don’t get a chance to speak and give them a voice. But first I would have to be interested in their world, my own self.
But empathy, there’s two forms of it. Empathizing to join someone’s suffering. People do that all the time. “My mother died,” “Oh, my mother died too!” Or “I’m having trouble in my relationship.” “Oh, so am I!” And then they start sharing war stories about negative shit. The other form of empathy is to be like, “Oh, your mother died, but there’s no such thing as death. Your mother’s still with you. She served her purpose in your life.” Start talking about the positive shit. That’s my form of empathy.
What kind of negative responses have you received to the film?
Mostly all the responses to my film have been positive. The negative ones have been mostly positive in the sense that—you know, people want to know why you named it ‘Field Niggas.’ Some people have ideas of exploitation simply because I’m dealing with people who are poor, even though I don’t regard them as poor. As I said, with my empathy, I still see them as rich. Because money is nothing in reality, so I’m looking at reality. Fuck if the world agrees with me.
A guy, Neil Young from the Hollywood Reporter, just wrote a good feature about Field Niggas. Totally unexpected. But I read what he wrote, and I liked what he wrote. Even though some of it could have sounded like it was coming at me because he basically felt that the first half of the film was stronger than the second half. He felt I was tooting my horn in the movie, that I was becoming a little too flamboyant of a character in the movie. I asked some people questions, “What you think about me as a documentarian, or as a photographer, in the area?” Then they would say something real positive, and I kept that in the film. It could have been perceived as arrogance, but that definitely wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show that I’m actually part of this community and as a filmmaker, don’t think you can come here and just shoot. It took me three years to do this.
Even in the film, I say the only other camera besides me is the surveillance camera. Because I don’t see other photographers where I shoot. When I was shooting in the Lower East Side, there were photographers everywhere I looked. When I started shooting, that was part of the decision-making process when I chose that area of Harlem. Because there was nobody documenting it. Even Bruce Davidson, he did 110th Street, but I haven’t seen anyone do 125th and Lex.
But I read what Neil Young wrote, and I thought it was great. I thought he liked my film. He was very poetic, and he was very descriptive. And his words and the way he wrote what he wrote, it was a good piece. I put it on my Facebook. But some people even commented on my Facebook post, “This dude didn’t know what he was talking about.” But I look at it like, he liked the movie, and there were parts he didn’t like. I do that with films.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
I found a quote from you, “I feel like I only started talking in my twenties. I’m 28 but I’ll be silent in my thirties, until I’m forty.” You’re now just a few months from 30. Do you feel the same way?
That’s actually been put into application now. So much has happened even since I been back from France, and I haven’t really been putting it out there. I used to have so much news, and I would blast it on Facebook. But now I’m just getting into myself more. When I was a teenager, I was more quiet. I was just working. I was trying to figure shit out, studying, reading books. Then when I was 20, I put all that into application. I started making films, started becoming a photographer. And now, I feel like I see what it is, and I can be effective at a distance. I can be more effective. Sometimes you get a lot more work done in silence. And I’m just thinking as far as publicly saying shit, there’s just so much going on, let other people talk about it. Let other people talk about it, but keep working. Give them something to talk about.
Interview by Chris Boeckmann