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A window into a brief but vibrant period in New York City street life, Charlie Ahearn‘s Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer works as both an introduction to the man who captured hip-hop culture’s early years and a deeper dig for fans who’ve long admired him. Though it lacks the polish and breadth that might have carried it into a wide art house run, the admiring film will please crowds in specialty bookings and should have legs on video, particularly if marketed alongside Shabazz’s popular monographs Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack.
Shabazz, whose father trained as a naval combat photographer, returned to Brooklyn from his own military stint in 1980 and promptly began haunting streets with a camera. Rather than grabbing candid shots, he asked permission and allowed his subjects to compose themselves for the camera; the resulting images find happy kids and young adults offering up idealized versions of themselves, often in elaborate or coded poses.
The work came to broad attention around the turn of the century, when a Paris gallery mounted a one-man art show and hip-hop magazines published it. Back in the Days was released, making Shabazz practically synonymous with early-’80s black and Latino street fashion. (The book sold out its first printing before it hit stores.)
The film introduces us casually to those who helped get Shabazz’s work in the public eye, and spends plenty of time with Shabazz both at home — where he talks about his youth, the cultures he documented, and how his day job as a corrections officer helped him earn the trust of some subjects — and on the streets, where he continues to work today. Ahearn’s own videography is undistinguished, but he is comfortable in the milieu: Having made the pioneering hip-hop film Wild Style around the same time Shabazz hit his stride, he has a rapport with interviewees, including Fab 5 Freddy.
Perhaps the most pleasure the film has to offer, though, is its present-day, on-the-street footage of men who experienced this era first-hand, who either posed for Shabazz or were friends with his subjects. Watching as men who’ve settled into adulthood deconstruct their beautiful younger selves — grinning at the suede Pumas, Kangols and square-rimmed glasses and admiring the “correctness” with which they were worn — affords a richer appreciation of this moment in time than even the pictures themselves.
Production Company: Pow Wow Productions
Director-Producer-Director of photography-Editor: Charlie Ahearn
Music: Cresh Fraze
No rating, 81 minutes
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