Back in 2017, quite a bit of media coverage was dedicated to the cinematography on the popular HBO dramedy “Insecure.” Issa Rae’s critically acclaimed series was heralded as an innovator for its ability to consistently capture the richness of Black skin on camera. And it’s true — “Insecure” lights and frames Black faces with warmth and beauty.
But the truth is, Black directors and cinematographers have always found ways to shoot Black skin glamorously. Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture winner “Moonlight,” shot by his frequent collaborator James Paxton, was released just the year before, with its purple and blue hues making every Black face look like a rich oil painting. From the work of Julie Dash and Spike Lee to the more contemporary Dee Rees and Ryan Coogler, we can pull a plethora of images capturing all the nuances of dark skin.
The difference now is that white filmmakers have been forced to confront their shortcomings when attempting to capture nonwhite faces. But, it doesn’t stop there: White audiences must also be made aware of this problem, and how it has affected the media they consume. “Prism” is a necessary first step in that conversation.
Jointly directed by An van Dienderen, Rosine Mbakam, and Eléonore Yameogo, “Prism” is an experimental, collaborative documentary from Belgium that interrogates the relationship between the camera and the Black subjects it captures in its powerful eye, thereby contemplating the emotional implications of an entire population not being seen clearly by others and even themselves. Rather than settling into the obvious conclusions of racism, each filmmaker ponders the camera as an instrument of colonization. They begin with addressing the inherent racism of the camera itself, as white director Dienderen discusses “China girls” — white women used as reference points for calibrating the color balance of images captured on camera.
With that standard set, it’s no wonder that white directors and cinematographers have difficulty realizing their errors when capturing darker skin tones. But what about the Black people on the other side of the camera who are misrepresented by their images? What does it feel like to be inaccurately perceived? How does that affect one’s self-perception?
Mbakam then takes over, explaining that the camera has a direct link to colonization, simply by virtue of being developed within a colonized world. Here, the camera is referred to as the “North,” a guiding light for how we see the entire world. We project truth onto it, looking for answers in the images. This puts whoever is holding the camera in a position of power over the subject of its gaze. When pointed at a Black face, the camera decides how we see it. We are at the mercy of the camera, an imperialist tool developed with only the powerful in mind.
She goes on to highlight how being captured improperly leads Black people to question the color of their own skin. Due to the assumed neutrality of technology, it’s too easy for us to blame ourselves for it not only to decolonize the camera, but also the way that cinema is taught and understood. In conversation with a former professor, they identify film school as part of the “North,” conceptualized by Western influence. Disinterest in Black images is taught to filmmakers, which leaves them with the task of unlearning the bias.
Throughout the film, we keep returning to the image of an African woman draped in a white dress and matching headwrap, staring defiantly into the camera. She sits erect, with her hands placed formally on her torso. Each time we see her, the voiceover ponders who she must be. Her star is provocative, daring us to take her in fully. The time we spend with her is the highlight of the film, even as she says nothing at all. Her skin is a warm chocolate hue, glowing through her white garments.
It’s a sumptuous image, punctuated by Mbakam’s introspective monologue, wondering aloud what it will take for this image to become the new standard. Later, this image is sharply contrasted with that of the third director, Yameogo. We are then forced to watch uncomfortably as she tries to position her face in front of her laptop’s camera. One moment, we can see her features. The next, her face is shrouded in darkness. As she struggles, her expression becomes progressively more unsure. In order to be seen, she must work against the camera in order to find herself in the image.
One of the most fascinating concepts the film explores is how Black subjects do not see the camera as safe in the same way white subjects do. White people trust the camera to tell them the truth, while Black people assume — often rightly — that it will lie to us. In order for Black faces to trust the camera, that relationship has to change. Recalibrating the equipment we use to capture images is the first step in a long process of reevaluation. “Prism” doesn’t provide us with easy answers, because it can’t. This is something that we all must confront together, and that confrontation is on-going.
“Prism” premiered at the 2021 New York Film Festival. Icarus Films will release it in the United States.