“People on Tumblr love you,” says an anonymous young woman to Khalik Allah near the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. “You should be in Chelsea. LES. People down there love stuff like that. Black people and drugs. So urban.”
It’s one of many self-aware moments in Allah’s debut feature, Field Niggas. The film is a study of that single intersection in Harlem, under the noise of a train station served by both the New York City subway and the Metro-North regional rail. It’s also where just this April a man was killed in a knife fight over an umbrella. The Daily News referred to the event as a “deadly reign of terror,” the sort of sensationalist tabloid language that has been used to describe violence in Harlem for ages. Allah’s project, in a sense, is to upend this narrow perception of the neighborhood and replace it with something much more honest and humanist.
He’s also an extremely skilled photographer. It’s no accident that Field Niggas is basically a compilation of moving portraits. His beautifully composed images capture the faces of those hanging out or passing through, with a particular knack for finding joy and strength in the expressions of the many down-and-out locals. All of his filming was done at night. Almost every frame would make a worthy photograph, though some of them are more breathtaking than others. And not a single one is presented with synchronized sound. Allah’s conversations with his subjects are played as an accompanying audio track to these portraits, but they never match exactly.
This loose relationship between sound and image accomplishes a few things. First, it gives a kind of anonymity to the voices, who often speak about drug abuse and criminal activity more broadly. Or, if not anonymity, at least uncertainty. Allah isn’t really interested in a progression of individual character profiles. Rather, he uses this method to soften the edges between people. Toward the end of the film he voices his own philosophy on this point, the unity of humankind. “We’re all one. Separation is an illusion.” The untethered form of Field Niggas is a gesture in this direction, an assertion of the shared consciousness of everyone milling about 125th and Lex.
Of course, one group does stand out like a sore thumb. The NYPD assert an aggressive, white presence in this predominantly black neighborhood. Their portraits in Field Niggas are truly silent, perhaps because they weren’t willing to give Allah much testimony. Those who do talk to Allah speak of the difficulty of overcoming criminal records and the constant threat of police harassment. One woman accuses the cops of targeting homeless people specifically when they’re smiling, a refusal to tolerate a coexistence of happiness and poverty. Another woman says that 125th is like “a prison without the gates,” and the presence of such obvious prison guards seems to underline her point.
Allah responds to the presence of the cops by breaking his stylistic commitment, just once. He cuts to a news report and the now-infamous video of the strangling of Eric Garner by the hands of the NYPD, with no warning. Yet, unlike Michael Moore’s use of these same images in the opening credits of Where to Invade Next, Allah gives them exactly the right weight. Much like the effect of Nixon’s “law and order” speech dropped abruptly by Frederick Wiseman into Law & Order, this sudden intervention of the broader scope of police brutality puts everything into stark relief. The lull of the nighttime idyll is banished, any inclination to settle into the corners of Allah’s rich twilight images interrupted by this lightning bolt of wakefulness.
Of course, Allah’s own presence can also be seen as something of an interjection into his own restrained style. It’s hard to notice at first. He doesn’t appear on screen, but after watching enough of the film his voice becomes identifiable. He eventually makes statements of purpose, some of which are more convincing than others. On the one hand, this hurts the aesthetic accomplishment of the film and recalls that this is his first feature. On the other, it’s effectively honest.
Field Niggas is unavoidably about Allah’s work as a photographer, at least in part. Some of the more impressive shots in the film seem posed, others less so. But the overall takeaway here is the reinforcement of his images, which stand out beyond any of the words he captured. Field Niggas is a superb extension of photographic style to cinema, exactly the sort of work that one always hopes for when an artist moves between stillness and motion.
Field Niggas opens on October 16th at IFP Screen Forward in New York City.