Mainly tailed to function for educational purposes, Thomas Allen Harris’ “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” contains a collage of images that tell the story of African Americans’ photographic representation within the context of the country’s broader history. Extremely ambitious in scope and meticulously assembled, the movie is undeniably a passion project sporting the filmmaker’s investment in its themes.
A photographer himself, Harris combines his fascination with the way African Americans have been depicted in the visual arts with his own experience as a black man not living in the public eye. Exploring how racially demeaning caricatures defined the black experience in American history books for centuries, he dug into his own and numerous other family photo albums to uncover the real, unpublished, lives of black families over the course of several eras.
One of Harris’ most influential mentors is Deborah Willis, curator and author of “Reflections in Black’ — which inspired the film — and several other volumes that compile and celebrate photographs by black artists. Harris explores the groundbreaking nature of her work, which brought attention to the fearless efforts of formerly unknown photographers.
Willis presented the works of early image-makers who used their talent to counteract the negative perception created by white majority. Among the ones surveyed here, one case that stands out is Sojourner Truth, who used photography in the 19th century to sustain her activism as an abolitionist. Through her photos, she reassured her identity as a valuable member of society and not the second-class citizen she was thought to be.
Harris’ lyrical narration is imbued with a sincere admiration for all his predecessors, including Carrie Mae Weems, Thomas, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Lorna Simpson, among others. It also exposes the personal fears and self-doubt imposed by a society that saw his race as defining quality of his character.
Understandably, this is a work that attempts to reconstruct the past and come to terms with the identity of people who have been deprived of a space to represent themselves in a truthful fashion. But in the great magnitude the film strives to convey, it barely touches on the misuse and dangers of modern African American images, which are in turn a product of discrimination and stereotypes carried over from the past. The film briefly the contemporary abuse of the black male image as a commodity for brands that bank on the commercialization of identity. However, “Through a Lens Darkly” misses the opportunity to explore other crucial issues that impact the way the black community perceives itself, ignoring hip hop-infused visions of wealth or the gang wars that continue to plague stereotypes surrounding it.
Although never less than intelligent in its focus, the film’s structure leaves something to be desired: The director matches hundreds of pictures, carefully selected to give voice to the creators, to traditional interviews with experts and artists. The result is largely akin to a feature-length museum exhibit. Harris’ dedication to ta project of incredible proportions is undoubtedly felt in his production. He uncovers the beauty and courage of his people in a manner that has rarely been so effectively documented. For those who can bypass the restraints of the concept, the memories unveiled here are a revelation.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Certain to make the rounds on the educational circuit, the movie’s theatrical prospects are limited, though it should manage a solid broadcast deal.