'Arrival' Cinematographer Bradford Young Dives Into Fine Arts With 'Back and Song'

John Lamparski/WireImage; Courtesy of Subject
Bradford Young and Elissa Blount Moorhead

Together with artist Elissa Blount Moorhead, the Oscar-nominated DP has created work for a new show in Philadelphia on race and health care.

Earlier this year, cinematographer Bradford Young was prepping Space Jam 2 for director Terence Nance. When the latter was replaced by Malcolm D. Lee on the Warner Bros. sequel, Young also exited, leaving him time to invest in a passion project with Elissa Blount Moorhead — an interdisciplinary artist and curator who is a principal partner at TNEG film studios with cinematographers Arthur Jafa (Crooklyn) and Malik Sayeed (He Got Game).

Back and Song is Blount Moorhead and Young's multi-screen film installation using new and archival images to celebrate healthcare practitioners in the African-American community. It runs Oct. 5-27 in the Girard College Chapel and is a co-production of Philadelphia Contemporary, a cross-disciplinary art organization, and Thomas Jefferson University.

A montage of everyday black family life at rest and on the move, Back and Song includes moments of transcendence and tranquility as well as alternative healing and body tuning through ritual, dance, sound therapy, meditation and well-being. Moorhead and Young's fourth collaboration, it was spurred by a 2016 study of 222 white medical students and residents that revealed nearly half of them believed black patients experience less pain than others. Young is hardly surprised at the results of the study. One of his earliest experiences with the medical establishment was when he accompanied his HIV-positive mother to the doctor, who blithely said of her condition, "So, it looks like you've been kissing Magic Johnson."

"I'm a 14-year-old kid already petrified, worrying about my mother's mortality, and on top of that we get this doctor who felt like he didn't need to show bedside manner cause he was looking at a black woman," says Young, an Oscar nominee for 2016's Arrival (the first African American ever nominated in the category) and an Emmy nominee for the Netflix limited series When They See Us. "In the black community and the African diaspora there's a well-fortified history of health practitioners who have tried to suffuse their own social justice into their medical practice — community birthing projects, midwife and women’s health practitioners providing free birthing services to women."

Blount Moorhead sees Western medicine as a transactional system that puts basic human needs out of reach for many and seldom has the patient’s best interests at heart. With universal health care in the conversation this campaign season, some see capitalism as an obstacle to affordable rates. 

"Capitalism has more starkly been an enemy of black people because we were the product," says Blount Moorhead. "It's not surmountable unless you either step outside the system or start dismantling it. In some way we're in the same place we've always been. New name — 'prison industrial complex,' 'enslavement' or 'sharecropping' — but honestly it's a problem for everyone who is not in the top 1 percent."

The average life expectancy for blacks is 75.4 years, with whites expecting 78.9. Blacks die at rates higher than whites among those suffering from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, HIV/AIDS, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, and homicide. Even more disheartening, 2015 Census Bureau statistics showed black children had a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma compared with white children. 

"The birth system has been medicalized," Blount Moorhead says. "The interaction between that and black bodies in this country, that history has been less about care and healing and more about experimentation and poking and prodding and a subjugation based on something akin to eugenics. That has been the history of our interaction with the system from the beginning. A lot has changed, and a lot has not." 

Young and his wife are currently expecting their third child, and when the time comes they will turn to their community in Baltimore, where he shoots film and photographs when he's not shooting movies like Solo: A Star Wars Story or Ava DuVernay’s Selma. His previous collaborations with Moorhead include film shorts As Told To G/D Thyself and Black America Again starring Common. Their Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn was a month-long community based art walk in the borough.

"We are a country that still hasn't had a conversation around slavery and the Middle Passage. We are a country that hasn't really unpacked our toxic imperialist national policies that have affected the health of two-thirds of the world's population. We're still a country that hasn't had a real conversation about the genocidal massacre of First Nations people," Young points out. "You open up those conversations and people have to admit they have some changes to make. But I think you need to continue to have conversations about these things. I'm not trying to be a politician or an activist. I'm interested in telling my story and describing my feelings around these issues. I'm giving people a window into my soul and Elissa is giving people a look into her soul."