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Why Discussing ’12 Years a Slave’s Cinematography Is Better Than a “Conversation on Race”

'12 Years a Slave' and the Politics of Black Skin

There’s an old gag — old enough, as the Coen brothers might say, to have whiskers on it — that everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. The same might be said of the race. Despite frequent calls, most recently in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, to convene such a “national conversation on race,” it never quite seems to start. Partly that’s because for most non-white Americans, that conversation began the day they were born; the idea that race doesn’t already inform every aspect of public life is part of the problem. But it’s also because a “conversation about race” is like a war on terror, so nebulously defined that it’s it’s impossible to know when it starts and when it ends.

12 Years a Slave is the latest cultural milestone that’s it been hoped might jump-start such a conversation, and in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday does an excellent of turning that vague imperative towards concrete manifestations. Looking at 12 Years and Mother of George, as well as such recent films as Fruitvale Station, The Butler and Baggage Claim, she looks at how directors and cinematographers are using new technologies to change the way black actors, and black skin, are represented on screen.

Although we naturally assume technology is value-neutral, Hornaday points out that there were biases built right into the raw film stock, which was geared towards representing pale skin tones. 

As 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

I doubt this is an issue most white viewers have ever considered; I certainly hadn’t until Daughters of the Dust director Julie Dash visited my college and discussed her preference for Fuji stock, which she found more sensitive not only to the superficial colors of African-American skin but the undertones beneath.

In the article, Mother of George D.P. Bradford Young, who won Sundance’s cinematography prize for film and also shot the similarly rapturous Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, says he was trying to be “as flamboyant, space-age and assertive as African American textiles have been for 10,000 years.” It’s startling to see how different Mother of George‘s star Danai Gurira looks here than on The Walking Dead, not only because she’s in the context of a Nigerian community in Brooklyn, but because her skin seems almost to glow from within. But perhaps the key quote, and certainly the most amusing, comes from Anastas Michos, who in Freedomland had to make Samuel L. Jackson and his alabaster-skinned costar visible in the same frame: “You had Julianne Moore, who has minus pigment in her skin, and Sam, who’s a dark-skinned guy. It was a photographic challenge to bring out the undertones in both of them.” Michos eventually used the digital intermediate to tweak the color timing on each of his subjects individually. It’s too bad there’s no DI equivalent for the real world.

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