Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

DIRECTOR: Thomas Allen Harris

Expected to attend: Producer Don Perry

As Frameline attendees know better than most people, images do much more than illustrate and inform. They represent. This film spans a century and a half in the forgotten annals of African American photography; in it, filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris poignantly and pointedly illuminates the disparity between two distinct views of black life and culture. Through a treasure trove of sublime, mostly black-and-white portraits from family albums and black newspapers, Harris etches a picture of dignified everyday life that contrasts starkly with the pandering stereotypes and racist propaganda circulated by the mainstream press.

This visually stunning and extraordinarily ambitious documentary is an excavation and reclamation project of the first order, and then some. Harris (Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela) lovingly honors the contributions and legacy of black photographers such as James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, and Gordon Parks—whose constant aim was “to expose something to the public that I thought was hidden”—while making space for important contemporary artists like Deborah Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, and Clarissa Sligh. The filmmaker’s coolly passionate narration threads through the film, posing complex questions about identity, equality, and place. Harris pauses to acknowledge the people who have often been omitted from African American family albums, namely lesbian and gay children and siblings. Ultimately, his goal is to restore every African American to the center of the frame, whether it’s Frederick Douglass or an unnamed Harlem shopkeeper.

— Michael Fox

AT&T Audience Award Text Voting Code: D327

Co-presented by:
Museum of the African Diaspora
SF Camerawork

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