In 1980, filmmaker Charlie Ahearn began making the first film documenting and historicizing the rise of hip-hop culture, Wild Style. His newest film, debuted already in shorter form at 2011's BAMcinemaFest, salutes a contemporaneous phenomenon: the 30-odd-year career of Jamel Shabazz, the preeminent photographic chronicler of black American street life. Shabazz, a native Brooklynite and onetime CO at Rikers, has been conscientiously building a virtual archive of inner-city life since he was a teen; taken cumulatively, his photographs constitute one of the most evocative anthropological libraries of modern Americana in existence.
Unpretentious, unprettified and to a large degree dictated by the subjects’ personalities in the moment, Shabazz’s images are all about implicit storytelling. As Ahearn and Shabazz return to the old neighborhoods and wander through the books and portfolios, their stories center all too often on the many photos of young men now long dead—the very business of cultural preservation becomes mourning. Ahearn hits all of the usual suspects, from Fab 5 Freddy on down, but his celebration of Shabazz inevitably takes on the tone of requiem.
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