Selma cinematographer Bradford Young's refreshing approach to lighting black skin
I remember sitting in TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto next to my best friend, watching a film with an energy that was intimately familiar, but that I had never before witnessed on screen. My friend and I were transfixed, not only by the story but also by the images. It was the first time I saw cinematographer Bradford Young's work, and remains one of my favourite movie-watching experiences.
You're the person that has to live and die by the frames that you generate.- Cinematographer Bradford Young
The movie was Ava DuVernay's 2012 Sundance award-winning feature Middle of Nowhere. Sitting in the theatre, I realized that I had never seen black faces like this on the screen — not overexposed, but rather, subtly reflective, embracing darkness and exposing the richness of their skin tone. Young's lighting enabled me to see the nuances and hidden layers in the characters, inviting me to invest in their journey, for better or for worse. The result? Not quite as poetic. My best friend and I were a hot mess in that theatre, crying, sighing, laughing and talking back to the screen in ways that the viewers behind us didn't much appreciate.
Since learning that the same individual was behind the deeply intimate images of Pariah, Mother of George and DuVernay's Oscar-nominated Selma, I have become a fan of Bradford Young. His growing body of cinematic work is making waves. Young won awards from the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 for Pariah and in 2013 for Mother of George and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and his upcoming projects include the sci-film Story of Your Life where he will be working with brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy). Recently, Young was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers — you can only become a member through invitation, so he's kind of a big deal.
Young's developing visual signature includes the frequent use of available light, relying often on "practicals" such as the lamp in a scene or the moonlight shining through a window. He's often cited photographers such as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks as inspiration, and his interviews reflect his passion for the craft, as well as the great sense of responsibility and intentionality he brings to every project. "You're the person that has to live and die by the frames that you generate," he told one interviewer.
I recently watched an earlier work of Young's, director Tina Mabry's 2009 film Mississippi Damned which, following a short run on the film festival circuit found new life on Netflix thanks to DuVernay's distribution company Array. Alone in my house, wrapped up in blankets on the couch, I watched one of the most painful yet beautiful films I have ever seen. The journey I was taken on by an ensemble of tragically human characters broke my heart, and left me wondering why there weren't hotlines for folks to call after experiencing such life-altering art.
Instead of the hotline, I'll have the chance to ask the cinematographer himself about it on Thursday in Toronto. Join us if you can.
Toronto Society of DirectHers and ProducHers Presents An Evening With Bradford Young. Hosted by Amanda Parris. Thu, Oct. 15. Design Cofounders, 205-96 Spadina Av., Toronto, ON. 7pm. $20 advance (no tickets sold at door). He appears on CBC's q on Friday.