Monday, December 10, 2007

The Talented Fielder Family X4 - X5....and counting...

Boston Fielder recently posted about his multi-talented brother the Arthur Jafa :cinematographer, filmmaker, producer, visual artist, writer, scholar, educator, etc. If you've been loving how beautiful folks of African descent looked in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (remember back in 1991 how some white reviewers just couldn't get over the beautiful hair and skin, one going so far as to intimate it looked more like a Laura Ashley advert than a historically accurate film--oh, please!) then you know the man's work. In 2004 Daughters, which Jafa also produced, was adopted into the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress which means it is one of the few films directed and produced by African Americans whose print will be preserved. Other notable Jafa-lensed films include Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994), and Malcolm X (1993). Hopefully, you've also been fortunate enough to see writer Dream Hampton's startling and poignant debut short film I Am Ali (2002), or Isaac Julien's documentary on some of the troubling aspects of the hip hop and dancehall reggae worlds, The Darker Side of Black (1993)--'cause Julien wasn't willing to stint on showing the external beauty of reggae artist Buju Banton, he just let the audience refocus the picture once Banton started talking.


Jafa worked on another documentary that's close to my heart because I founded a festival that screened its penultimate edit, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, the labor of love from co-directors Ada Gay Griffith and Michele Parkerson; and with the enormously talented Jacqueline Shearer on The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, also dear to me because I've taught the film as a counterpoint and historical corrective to the narrative feature Glory (1989). This Hollywood effort contained a number of errors and put a spin on the black male soldiers who served in this Union army regiment and their white commander apparently meant to put white audiences at ease about the presence of free, educated black men during the antebellum period. Plus look at the way Jafa shot those archive photos and tintypes, oh yeah. In The Black Studies Reader (2004), the reprint of Shearer's writing on the making of the documentary, " How Deep, How Wide? Perspectives on the Making of The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry," is prefaced by an Editor's Note which includes this comment:

"According to Joseph Glatthaar in The Journal of American History, The Massachusetts 54th tells a more accurate story than did the film Glory, and contains fewer errors about the Civil War than did Ken Burn's documentary series on the war. Glatthaar states: "Jacqueline Shearer and her team deserve kudos for their excellent research. The filmmakers scoured archives from Washington, D.C. to Massachusetts and located numerous fresh and exciting collections of letters from Black soldiers."

Jafa made everyone he shot look good in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), as well as in one of my favorite independent films, Frailty (2001), where you can finally see Matthew McConaughey show his acting muscle instead of riding on charm, a toned body, and great teeth. Watching him and Powers Boothe play an ever escalating game of verbal cat and mouse is better than a lot of high tech chase scenes, and the DVD's Sundance Anatomy of A Scene segment is essential viewing for low budget special effects. Of course, there is also Jafa's own richly paletted film, Slowly This (1995) an adaptation of David Mura and Alex Pate's multi-media performance piece on the interior lives of Japanese American and African American men, Secret Colors. The Walker Art Center (love 'em!) premiered the performance, and the still-missed Minnesota-based PBS short films program ALIVE TV (aka Alive From Off Center) gave the film its national broadcast, which is how I managed to see it.

But I digress. Jafa's contributions are important not just because he has an amazing eye for color and light, and can he get focus pulled? Well, take a look at his latest She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness (2007), directed by a young filmmaker, Malik Hassan Sayed. Note all the ways Jafa plays with focus and point of view, from razor sharp edges, and life-radiating flesh and skin, to impressionistic brushes that had me thinking of artist Gerhard Richter's various photo-paintings particularly the Family, Women, and Baader-Meinhof series. Apparently Jafa and Sayed are business partners and Sayed has been fortunate to have Jafa as a mentor as well. This willingness to work with and mentor younger and/or less established filmmakers early in their careers, while they're still shooting short narrative work is the other reason Jafa's contributions are salient, particularly to filmmakers of African descent. Back in the day a number of filmmakers got their start through programs at regional public television stations WNET-NY and the like, but many of those internship and journeyperson avenues have long since disappeared. Mentoring the next generation is imperative (take a look at Sayeed's imdb page to trace his work alongside Jafa as his junior and then equal; both are Howard University alum). Also worth noting is Jafa's long association with filmmaker/scholar Manthia Diawara, as cinematographer for most of Diawara's documentaries. Many successful directors of photography/cinematographers who early-on worked in both documentary and narrative features end up in working in feature films full-stop, but Jafa has continued to lend his eye to documentary work. Why is this important? Crudely put--documentaries are not just talking moving-picture books. They are part of a cinematic tradition and if a director chooses to tell a non-fiction story visually then it's no sin to create a work that is visually expressive and evocative of that story, and even beautiful. Cinematography in this field is also key as documentary is genre in which most of the stories of folks of African descent are told. Shearer was a visual storyteller; her documentary is powerful because of the way the rigorous research was combined with Jafa's photography, Morgan Freeman's warmly authoritative narration, and the music and sound. Speaking of the latter, She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness features some edgy, under the skin, ambient bass pulsings by the singular bassist/composer Melvin Gibbs (Harriet Tubman, Melvin Runs the Hoodoo Down, Elevated Entity, Liberation Theology, Rollins Band). Check It Out.

Endnote I:

Along with Jafa, my current favorite contemporary cinematographers are, Ellen Kuras, Jim Denault, and Rodrigo Prieto. Three out of the four have worked with Spike Lee at some point in their careers.

Endnote II:
There isn't enough writing by thoughtful and incisive African American visual artists easily available to the public, but here's some by and about Arthur Jafa. Also, running Jafa's name through an Amazon book search uncovers his contributions to and citations in a number of visual arts, popular culture and cultural studied texts (including work with artist Kerry James Marshall; and his article on his concept "Black Visual Intonation" from 1998's The Jazz Cadence of American Culture a re-working of the "69"article listed below).
• Writing by Arthur Jafa available on the web: "69" (from Black Popular Culture, 1992); "Like Rashomon but Different: The New Black Cinema" (1993).
• Writing on Arthur Jafa available on the web: "Generation next, or the future of bad hair: text for a film by Greg Tate and Arthur Jafa - authors; Black unity" by Greg Tate, from African American Review (1997)
• Finally, some YouTube from Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: "burnt sugar presents screamin' arthur jafa"

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11 Comments:

At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check Matthew Libatique's work. He is highly influenced by the work of Arthur Jafa. Matthew is also another cinematographer who has toiled on the Spike Lee farm.

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Oh, thanks for the heads up on this, Anonymous! I've really liked Libatique's work on a number of films without knowing it was the same cinematographer Pi, Gothika, particularly on Inside Man and She Hate Me (low point for Lee, but still beautifully shot) and even Josie and the Pussycats; Rosario Dawson didn't end up looking washed out next to all the white actors. I'll have to check out his work with Aronofsky, as well.

 
At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you happen to know if arthur jafa was ever married to julie dash?

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger audiologo said...

Dear Anonymous #2,

Sorry, I have no idea if Arthur Jafa was ever married to Julie Dash.

 
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