I have a soft spot in my heart for parts of New York City that remind me of Baltimore. These areas are usually predominantly black, and seem a far cry from the high-fashion, finance-district money orgy that even Brooklyn is becoming.
In “Field Niggas,” Harlem filmmaker Khalik Allah appeals to this sensibility. Interviewing the homeless, addicts, and other ordinary people under the electric blue glow of bodega awnings in the Harlem night, Allah acknowledges the unseen in a way that’s vital today, especially in Baltimore. These are the people that the Giulianis, Bloombergs, and Rawlings-Blakes of the world don’t want you to believe still exist.
Not just New York and Baltimore are guilty of this, of course. Between redlining and other housing segregation, and the opportunity vacuum that results, Baltimore’s deepening division, perpetuated by apartheid policing, is now on display for the entire world. Despite the planned development in Remington, and a certain type of (white) Baltimorean seeking to make this into an Under Armoured Natty Boh nightmare devoid of color, the generations of frustration of a segment of town simultaneously ignored by the rest of the city and antagonized by the police tasked with containing them exploded last Monday. Fuckboys like Don Lemon, Wolf Blitzer, and Geraldo Rivera rebranded this community’s appeal to be heard as a “riot.” The chasm between “New Baltimore” and the Baltimore we can only call old because of protracted neglect has been revealed to many who were previously ignorant.
“Field Niggas” is like counter-programming to the narrative of gentrification that has unfurled in Harlem and beyond. When quaint shops and dog parks and luxury lofts move in, be it under the tainted auspice of revitalization or straight-up eminent domain, the fact remains that the original residents of that area do not just vanish, particularly those who are most vulnerable and do not have the resources (or desire) to relocate. The intimate conversations Allah has with his subjects reminds those who need reminding not only that these people still exist within their cities, but also that their humanity is undeniable. “Field Niggas” snaps back to what we’re seeing in Baltimore: a culture where blacks are dehumanized regularly and are often cordoned off from white residents.
“What do you think about the life you livin’” Allah asks a subject, an older sister who laments the “what’s yours is mine” mentality of the streets. “I think the life I’m living is fucked up, but I’m trying to make a change . . . I’m not ready . . . I’m just stuck on 125th.” The slowly swaying, grinning woman is more humanized than she’d ever be in a local-news, man-on-the-street interview.
“Just give me one word of advice,” Allah says to another subject, who is by her own admission high on the synthetic K2. “Go home,” she replies. It is a moment of vulnerability that other documentarians might meticulously craft. And it forces us, especially us Baltimoreans, to think where home is for each of us.
In Baltimore, there are those who are similarly vulnerable. And the neglect of the need for investment of capital and compassion in the communities forced to the margins is profound. The “New Baltimore” has been pushed to young professionals and tourists for a generation. There are of course people from other parts of the country who want to live in this city, to live and learn and work here. Yet there is a lack of willingness to integrate and engage, particularly with the types of people interviewed by Allah, the types that threw bricks at police who’d antagonized them from the jump, the types worried that the unity of Baltimore’s protests may fade when the cameras finally leave and Freddie Gray becomes a footnote in history to many.
Allah’s film coming to Baltimore for the Maryland Film Fest is more timely than ever: The importance of telling the stories of people whose stories are rarely told, or even ignored, is tantamount to growing beyond the pain of the past. The unity of the last several days has reaffirmed my love for this town and has been a solid reminder of how imagined differences are deadly to the spirit of both an underdog city such as Bmore and a metropolis like New York.
I spoke to Khalik Allah before the events of April 25, which included Allen Bullock (who is now locked up and facing $500,000 after turning himself in) smashing a cop-car window and overshadowing the day’s massive peaceful action. Hearing someone call the protesters outside the Western District animals sent me into a blinding rage. Allah’s message of love over fear was certainly one I needed that day. And considering the curfew, tear gas, media zones, and troops on city streets, it’s a message the city, and the country as a whole, is in need of as well. (Kasai Rex)
City Paper: What has the medium of photography come to mean for you over these last few years?
Khalik Allah: Photography to me is a form of documentation. This is a form of journaling, you know? I was already messing with cameras at 14, but at that point, I was like, “Man, yo, I really want to start doing more with cameras.” Photography at that point was boring to me. I was more into the video element. And, I made a short film when I was 19 called “The Absorption Of Light,” and I used all of Wu-Tang’s music in it. And when it was done, I got in contact with Killah Priest and a lot of the Wu members, and I started working with them. And then after [I worked on] a four-year project. A documentary on Popa Wu, who’s like the patriarch of the Wu-Tang Clan. After that, I was like, yo, I don’t wanna do films anymore, I just wanna create something quick. I want to be able to just take a picture or something. Really, I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a photographer until one day, the GZA [of Wu-Tang Clan] was comin’ out to my neighborhood, and I asked my brother if I could borrow a camera, just to take some photographs of him. And my brother was like, nah, I don’t let people borrow my shit. I had asked my pops for his camera, and he ended up giving me a film camera, like a real, manual, heavy metallic film camera. Then after that, I’m like, “yo that was meant to be.” I had to thank my brother, you know? Like, thank you for being selfish, because now, I’ve found something which I was meant to connect with. And that’s when I became a photographer. The people in “Field Niggas,” they can’t differentiate between which type of camera I’m using. They’re used to me just taking photographs. So even though I’m shooting video, for the movie, they were still posing for mad long, holding that pose like it was a still image. And that worked out well, because it became like a photographer’s documentary.
CP: Both “Field Niggas” and your photography paints a portrait of New York City that a lot of people might not recognize. And I think that’s deliberate, on account of gentrification and Giuliani, Bloomberg, and de Blasio in some respect pushing these people out to the fringes literally and figuratively. What does it mean to you to bring the stories of these people out there on the street to the front like this and kinda squash misconceptions?
KA: To me, it’s honesty. And it represents my own yearning for reality, you know what I’m saying? Because, you know, we see so much fake shit. I work in corporate America, and you got to small talk and you got to fuck around and play your position. But when you’re in the streets, it’s all real life. So to be there documenting it, my position in the streets is just an observer. But to me, it’s just showing people my vision, that’s a form of breathing, that’s expanding, extending. When you focus on a thought, it expands. Anything you focus on expands. I’m writing with light.
CP: As far as the title, “Field Niggas.” How useful do you think, for the sake of black America, as far as our progress, and white America’s progress too, is that field nigga/house nigga dichotomy today?
KA: As far as a construct, like a social construct, I don’t know if it’s useful at all. To me, it was an artistic decision. It has a historical implication, but it was more an aesthetic, artistic decision. Like you notice, I’m saying “field niggas,” but I’m not talking shit about “house niggas.” In the film, you don’t hear me coming at Barack Obama or Colin Powell or like any politician, or any black person. I’m not really doing that. What I intended was “field niggas,” meaning those who are in the back, those who are in the field who never get to voice their opinion. Like, just to give them the microphone. So as far as that goes, that dichotomy, it definitely still does exist, but I wasn’t really trying to shine light on a political theme. It’s more like a spiritual thing. The music in the film adds a whole spiritual element to the struggle. The only music I used, it was just people singing. It was a 1950s prison chain gang, and the beat was an axe hitting wood, that’s it. They’re just chopping wood and chopping down trees and singing. Those were the songs that helped to get through a day’s work. These guys are in prison, but they’re still happy. They’re happy enough to sing. And that’s spiritual, they’re singing like they’re in church. They’re happy enough to bring that out, even while they’re in prison. And that parallels my film, where the homeless and the drug-addicted are still happy, and they say that. They say, “we’re still happy.” And then they’re smiling. My form of empathy doesn’t join in the suffering, and thus lighten the suffering by joining with it. My form of empathy, I’ll go into the suffering, and be like, “Yo, we’re still good,” you know what I mean? Because I know famous, rich people, that are suffering more than homeless, drug-addicted people. It’s all a state of mind.
CP: I noticed a lot of the people that you interviewed were darker skinned and that was another striking aspect of it, because, there’s this, within the black community and certainly within the white community, and others as well, there’s this connotation of those with dark skin as the proverbial “field nigga,” the ugly ones, the lesser-than. But the way that you shoot, I don’t know if it’s the aperture or the light or a combination, but it brings out this beauty in that darker skin that’s really striking.
KA: That’s something that I’ve been doing in my photography first. And I wanted to bring the same photographic style into my filmmaking. And I’m shooting [Kodak] Portra color film on black skin, and the thing about black skin is that it has multiple tones, even magenta, and purples and blues. It’s not brown or black, per se. It’s all these different tones. And the different light could accentuate that. So, also, it’s beautiful. I’m showing the beauty there. I’m showing the fact that the light is always there and can never really be obscured by circumstances of drug addiction or homelessness or poverty or any of those things. And obviously, the blacker the black of the person in America, [the more often they were] considered a field nigga. They were always the most beaten and brutalized and tormented throughout slavery. That’s why the house niggas used to be light-skinned. I look at myself as a light-skinned brother, but I’m one of the most ill field niggas out there, I’m like Nat Turner right now. I’m going against the system, and the way that I’m hanging, like I’m getting hung for the rebellious photography style, but hung in the way of my work in galleries. Like, it’s all a metaphor. My photographs are being hung, instead of me being lynched.
CP: As far as the MFF and the other places it’s showing, do you have a sort of imperative to show the types of audiences that go to galleries in certain neighborhoods or film festivals, do you have an imperative to show that type of audience what the world on 125th and Lex is like, or is it bigger than the white gaze?
KA: I never really cared about the audience. Well, let me tell you this. The film was originally released online. I released this movie on YouTube and Vimeo simultaneously. And when you do it online, you don’t know who’s looking at you, what race, what age. I’m not into the analytics where I can figure all that out, I don’t know. I’m just happy that it’s getting all these hits and shit. But then when I started screening it in public, most of the crowds were white. I didn’t judge in any certain way, because they were always mixed also. I just did NYU, and it was a girl in a burqa next to the manager of The Clash, The Clash’s old school manager was in there. And then there were like the NYU professors and kids, teenagers. So I was like, holy shit. But the thing about showing it to white audiences is they get to see the humanity that’s still there that the average person would just be misled about by way of the television set. TV will show you, oh there was a killing right here in New York City, right here on this corner. And it’ll show the people as just, murderers, and drug-infested, criminals. And the high police presence in the area, they need to be there because of all of the crime, that’s what the news is gonna broadcast. But to see this film, and to hear me asking them questions, about, what do you think happens when you die? Or the profound addictions, like, to ask a crackhead or drug addict or homeless person the big questions of life, and then listen, and they got a profound answer that you wouldn’t expect them to come with. That is gonna make people say, oh, I have to think twice about judging a neighborhood like that. But also, I don’t think that it makes anybody feel guilty either, because I’m showing it in front of all sorts of white audiences, and they loved the fact that they were welcome, that they felt like they were welcome into a neighborhood that they would’ve otherwise avoided. And then it’s a lesson, it’s the educational piece. This film is going to NYU, it’s already done that, I’m going to Bard College and I’m going to Quinnipiac. The colleges seem to be interested in this as like a deterrent, also, but then an ethnographic, educational documentary.
CP: There’s one portion of the film where you’re handing out shoes to a guy from the trunk of a car, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there are people out there who have this hang-up about helping a certain type of person on the street who might be in need. Can you talk about the role of that kind of spirituality and the bigger picture that you’ve alluded to with this educational piece of your photography?
KA: People have to realize that when you give somebody something, you can only give yourself something. And that’s what you’re doing. You gotta see yourself in every single brother in the world. Because that’s the understanding that everything is connected in the universe. It’s not one thing that’s disconnected from the next thing, everything is connected, especially us as humans, through the mind. We’re indebted to one another. But the thinking of this world is predicated on the scarcity principle, meaning that to give is to lose, if I give you something, I don’t have it anymore. But the law of the kingdom of God, the heavenly law says to give is to receive, they’re the same. That really needs to be implicated, that needs to be practiced by everyone in order for the world to be redeemed from the chaotic state it’s in now. And this could take thousands of years or it could take one day. It all depends on the flipping of the mind-state. I feel like my film is furthering and helping to facilitate that form of spiritual development, which is really just natural if you think about it. Your mother gives to you and doesn’t charge you for the breast milk. Picture a mother charging a baby for the breast milk, and when you turn 18 you gotta pay for it. That’s kind of the way that the world is. The Earth provides for everybody, the Earth provides everything, and the Earth is the mother, but yet, everything is taxed and charged because of the idea of scarcity. It’s really fear. Fear is the biggest religion going for this world. But fear is eventually gonna have to yield to love. Because it’s only two emotions, it’s love and it’s fear, it’s one and the other. When people wanna hold onto things and not give it to other people, that’s because they believe in scarcity. They think that they don’t already have everything. But the universe provides for everyone. The birds aren’t starving.
CP: If they are, it’s because of us.
KA: Yeah, exactly.
CP: It’s good to hear and see the work that you’re doing, and have it not be this grand-standing thing. Efforts at humanization today are too rare. The message of love over fear is rare as well.
KA: Definitely, brother. I’m grateful to have the platform to be doing this.
“Field Niggas” screens May 9 at 10 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art and May 10 at 2:15 p.m. at MICA Lazarus Grad Studio. The opening reception for Khalik Allah's photo exhibition "125th and Lexington" is on May 8 from 6-10 p.m. at Area 405.