Tracing the Roots of Khalik Allah’s “Camera Ministry”

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of watching a Khalik Allah film to intuit that he’s a photographer. Over the course of just two documentary features, the thirty-four-year-old, New York–bred artist has developed an instantly recognizable style at odds with much of American nonfiction filmmaking—one that invests a great deal of faith in the capacity of a single shot, untethered from discernable chronologies or narrative arcs, to capture spiritual truths. Reaching beyond social-realist conventions, Allah brings an audacious lyricism to his portraits of people of color who live under extreme conditions of marginalization. His 2015 breakthrough film, Field Niggas, is a highly stylized chronicle of homelessness, substance abuse, and violence on one Harlem street corner. The just-released Black Mother, one of the stand-out selections at last year’s New Directors/New Films, is a poetic travelogue of Jamaica that blends images of poverty with rhapsodic meditations on the island’s natural beauty and cultural vibrancy.

The suffering that Allah depicts is unsettling, but his films arrive at their social commentary through an intimate, often tender approach to portraiture free of editorializing. The people in these films carry their stories in their eyes, in their postures, and on their unforgettable faces, and Allah, who calls his work “camera ministry,” has a way of accessing the inner lives of even the most emotionally closed-off subjects by engaging with the physical realities of their experiences.

When Allah began winning acclaim on the international film-festival circuit a few years ago, his sensibilities already seemed fully formed. But his path to cinema has been a circuitous one. As documented in his powerful book Souls Against the Concrete, he honed his skills in still photography, experimenting with different formats while immersing himself in the nocturnal world that would become the setting of Field Niggas. But the desire to capture bodies in motion, as well as the oral testimonies of the people he befriended on the streets, led him to merge his photographic style with the moving image. During a visit to Criterion, he talked with us about how he arrived at his calling and the twin influences of hip-hop and international art-house cinema.

How did you get your hands on your first camera?

When I was young, I always wanted one. Some kids want a bike or a skateboard, but for me, I was just really impressed with the fact that you could record things and have them forever on video. I was begging my mother since I was thirteen, and then when I turned fourteen, she got me a Canon ES190. At that age, I was into break-dancing and skateboarding and did some graffiti, so I was basically shooting those things. And just my friends, smoking weed. But I never edited any of it. About five years later, when I was in community college and took a course called Intro to Digital Filmmaking, I learned I could do something more with this kind of footage. Before I had just been doing in-camera edits, but that class opened my mind to the fact that I could put it all into Final Cut Pro and chop it up. Some of that stuff ended up in Black Mother, because I had been filming in Jamaica in those early years. About ten percent of the film is made up of that old footage.

Tell me what it was like spending so much time in Jamaica when you were a kid. How were those experiences different from your time there recently, while you were making Black Mother?

I grew up in Long Island, but my maternal family is from Jamaica and my dad’s family is Iranian. I don’t know the Iranian side too well, but from the age of three I was going to Jamaica a lot to see family. I’m a dual Jamaican-American citizen, so it wasn’t as if I was going as a tourist; I was seeing my aunts and uncles, and staying at my grandfather’s house. We’d all sit in the kitchen and cook up a big meal. Going to Jamaica with my family felt very safe, and they lived in the countryside, so I was experiencing a cleaner, quieter side of Jamaica.

But when I made this film, I wanted to include the struggles of the city, where you have sex workers and hustlers and gritty elements. One of the concepts of this project was to include my family within a more 360-degree perspective: the positive, the negative, the neutral. When I was a kid going to stay with my grandfather, we’d go to the monastery, and he’d just be praying over me. But I knew there was so much more to the island because I saw it just by looking out the window—people were struggling.

It’s interesting to know you spent so much time shooting video as a kid, because I think a lot of people first approaching your work think of you as having been a photographer first, before you switched over to filmmaking. What were your gateways into cinema?

Honestly, I used to not even like movies as a kid. But when I was in community college, I had a professor who introduced me to Rashomon. I just remember watching it and being tripped out by it. I just liked how the story was depicted from a number of different points of view. I’d seen films that had borrowed that approach from it, and it was exciting to find the original. It’s kind of like how in hip-hop you’ll hear a sample and then later you’ll be listening to the radio and hear that melody in the original song.

You even have a video up on your YouTube called Urban Rashomon. What is it about Kurosawa’s style that spoke to you?

The thing I love about his films is that he deals with the big themes; he doesn’t shy away from them. I guess I’m also trying to deal with those issues. Life and death—things that can be vague because they are so big but that I try to make nuanced and specific. I think of his sensibilities as a filmmaker as being like the lion and the lamb. Strength and innocence don’t have to be in conflict; they coexist in his films. As a filmmaker I’m trying to grapple with that. I like intensity, and I’m trying to bring that out—not to be provocative, but just because life itself is intense.

But aside from Kurosawa, I also loved Being There. I love the character and his ignorance of his own ego. I used to work at AMC Networks as a broadcasting technician, so I watched a lot of movies. Under the AMC umbrella were the IFC Channel and the Sundance Channel, and when they realized I liked watching a lot of artsy movies, they put me on those. I saw that tagline, “Life is a state of mind,” at the end of the film and I thought, oh, whatever this is I have to see the whole thing! As someone who has always been interested in inwardness, that resonated with me.

The oldest film title credited to you on IMDb is a documentary about Popa Wu from 2010, and it’s quite different from your most recent two features. Tell me how you met him and what it was like working with the Wu-Tang Clan so early in your career.

I grew up in the Five-Percent Nation, which is an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, and a lot of the Wu-Tang members are Five-Percenters, so I used to bump into them at rallies and parliaments in Harlem and different places. One day, Popa Wu—he’s the older cousin of GZA, RZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard—took me to the studio where Wu-Tang was making 8 Diagrams, and when I met GZA I was so happy—Liquid Swords was the first album I ever bought. I dropped out of community college and went on tour with him, and I ended up spending four years on my first film project.

It was all trial and error—it was like my bachelor’s degree. The film was about so many things because I didn’t understand what I was doing; it was about the Five-Percenters, about Popa Wu, about Wu-Tang and hip-hop. When I was done with that movie, I became a photographer, and it was after shooting for a number of years that I made Field Niggas. I see that as my first real film, because it was the one I made after having been a photographer and taking on that sensibility.

A still from Field Niggas

Even though your two recent films don’t feature a lot of music, you can still sense your deep roots in hip-hop. Would it be correct to say there’s something of a kinship between those films and the street-doc style you find in a lot of classic rap?

Oh, absolutely. I’m a visual MC. Growing up in the world of hip-hop, my friends and I used to rap, we used to break-dance, we used to do graffiti, some of us DJed—and those are the four elements of hip-hop. I was never good at rapping, though people told me I had a good voice for it. But my form of rap is in the testimonies of the people you find in the films. When I come out with a film, it’s like I’m dropping an album.

Hip-hop is not polished; it’s not socially acceptable all the time. Those aspects of hip-hop are in my work. But hip-hop can be gentle too. Some of the hardest artists, like Ghostface Killah, have a sentimental side—I remember asking him who his inspirations were, and they’re all soul singers. So I draw inspiration from that too.

And I was also very much inspired by the Hype Williams movie Belly. Malik Sayeed was the cinematographer on that—when I was a kid, I always thought the director and cinematographer were the same person, which probably led me into thinking I had to shoot all my own stuff. I was thirteen when that movie came out in the theater, and it left a big impression on me. In German cinema, you have expressionism, and to me that film was doing a kind of hip-hop expressionism. I want to do the same thing. My landscape is the human face. But I also like to shoot inanimate things as if they were people: water, or statues. And because I use a handheld camera, the audience gets a sense of those things being tangible.

But on top of your visual sensibility, there’s also the intensity of the sounds you capture, including the voices of the people in your films. How do you go about getting your subjects to be so open and transparent with you?

I emphasize to them the importance of their opinion. They may say, “Why me?” and I’ll tell them, “I just feel you have a very unique sense of what’s going on, and that’s valuable.” The thing is, I’m speaking to people who are usually overlooked. I don’t really consider them interviews; they’re testimonies. And in order to gain that access, I have to establish trust. That’s not always easy to do; a lot of people say no. Sometimes it’s about being persistent even after you’re rejected. But I feel like I get the right people because it’s bigger than me: I’m just the channel.

When I do find a person who agrees to be a part of my project, I act like they’re the only person who matters. I show them that respect. I’m shaking my head in agreement, even if they’re saying something that’s not politically correct. I’m giving them that vibe, like: keep telling me. If you look at both of my films, they’re dealing with people who could be considered insane. I feel like the world is so crazy, and having the camera as a buffer is almost like a form of psychotherapy.

I was shooting this woman named Sapphire while making Field Niggas. She saw a picture I took of her, and she said, “It’s the first time I’ve seen myself in ten years.” She started crying: “Oh, it’s so beautiful.” Many of these people, their last picture was a mug shot or a hospital picture. And many of them don’t have social media to spew their opinions about life. When I come through I give them that outlet.