'Field Niggas': Film Review

Courtesy of True/False Film Festival
Uncompromising immersion into a street-tough environment reminds us that there's no "I" in ethnography.

Street-photographer Khalik Allah's mid-length documentary talks to the denizens of a hazardous Harlem intersection.

An hour-long Harlem nocturne of near-hallucinatory intensity, Khalik Allah's provocatively-titled Field Niggas seeks to give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless. But while admirable in its intentions and distinctive in its aesthetic, the project is ultimately hobbled by repetitiveness and directorial self-regard. Having reaped attention and critical support at Missouri's True/False Film Festival earlier this year, this clear-eyed depiction of America's marginalized urban poor is set for a mid-July Brooklyn exposure courtesy of Rooftop Films. Further special-event exhibition at edgy venues and festivals is indicated for a flawed but fascinating work which would likely play just as well as a gallery-type installation.

The junction of 125th Street and Lexington has long been known as one of the most dangerous corners of New York, and is the spot where heroin is scored in The Velvet Underground's 1966 classic "I'm Waiting For the Man." These days its most hazardous aspects relate to traffic and sidewalk congestion, with dozens of pedestrian, vehicle and bicycle collisions each year. There are also eight methadone clinics within a five-block radius, and the spot is known as a homeless hangout — residents of the Wards Island shelter are bused here in the morning and picked up here at night, as it's such a handy intersection of public-transport options.

None of this background information is supplied in Allah's film, which instead focuses intently and intimately on the individuals who congregate here after dark. Many are African-American; many use alcohol and other, more illicit drugs; all, it seems, are poor. And all have stories to tell, via sound-man Josh Furey's non-synch audio track which gives each speaker a platform without comment or interruption. Visuals are more fragmented and elliptical and subjected to greater distortion, with multitasking Allah especially fond of slow-motion as his digital cameras take in the textures and peculiarities of his photogenic subjects.

Again and again we see smoke curling out from mouths and nostrils, throughout a work which, like the films of Portugal's Pedro Costa, seeks and finds beauty in the most unlikely of places — and thus of course runs the risk of poverty-aestheticization charges. Such concerns are lessened by the intensity and directness of Allah's immersion in his chosen milieu, and a greater problem arises via his own increasing prominence — first as a charismatically forceful off-camera voice ("we all in the struggle together") and then via glimpses of his camera-wielding self in shop-front mirrors, etc.

In its second half, Field Niggas subtly morphs from ethnographic-anthropological exercise in hard-knock humanism into something akin to a platform for the film-maker's philosophies and world-view. A little bit of his mystical street-angel rambling ("none of this means anything") goes a long way, and it's hard to reconcile his love-for-all, we-are-all-one stance with his unambiguously critical presentation of the area's (mostly white) police — who are frequently (and unflatteringly) seen but never heard.

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Debates around race and policing have of course only intensified since Field Niggas was completed last year — Allah repeatedly interpolates images relating to the arrest and death of choke-hold victim Eric Garner — and this summer's Charleston church shootings have brought interracial matters into even sharper, more contentious focus. As a poetic dispatch from society's lower depths, Field Niggas is an oblique but inescapably topical slice of slick but rough-edged humanism — a polyphonic roundelay that hits some powerfully discordant notes before the director decides to start tooting his own horn.

Production company: Khalik Allah
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Cinematographer / Editor: Khalik Allah
Sound: Josh Furey
Sales: Khalik Allah, Elephant Gun, New York
No Rating, 60 minutes