Directed by Khalik Allah
Opens October 16 at the Made in NY Media Center
Comprised almost entirely of slo-mo shots of the homeless (and some neighborhood denizens) living at the 125th Street/Lexington Avenue section of Harlem, Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas could easily be accused of exploiting and aestheticizing its subjects. Yet Allah’s simple yet effective documentary methods prevent FN from succumbing to poverty tourism. The most significant method divides sound from image: Allah recorded audio on occasions separate from filming, making the musings, protests, arguments, laments, rap lyrics, jokes, and expressions of hope on the film’s soundtrack stand in stark contrast to the dreamlike beauty of its nighttime photography.
FN is the latest documentary to discover beauty—harsh or otherwise—among those living on the margins of society, extending a legacy that dates at least as far back to Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 landmark On the Bowery. Like Rogosin, Allah (who can be heard telling a woman, “All I see is light. You’re beyond the physical body”) is obsessed with faces and all they reveal of the soul: the blotchy pink and brown pigmentation of a veteran exposed to chemical warfare, the drowsy glaze of various K2 smokers, and the beautiful countenance of a young black woman whose smile lights up the Manhattan night. But the voices of these “subjects” often cut through the oneiric ether with justifications for stealing, denunciations of police harassment, and descriptions of the ravages of hunger and drug abuse. Throughout FN images and words complement and challenge each other, both viable yet imperfect reflections of a way of life that can never be fully understood by those on the outside.
FN also possesses a fragmented structure that flits among subjects and avoids a linear demarcation of time. This will likely frustrate viewers expecting Allah to chart the macrocosmic social forces responsible for homelessness or to cover them through a single representative case. (After the end credits Allah explains the film’s title, which refers to the “divide and conquer” strategy of slave owners—Allah wishes to combat the modern version of that strategy by depicting those living on the street as our equals.) Instead Allah goes for audio-visual “poetry”—a lofty and risky goal for any documentary venture, but one that FN successfully, and uniquely, obtains.