The history of African-American photography is a tale not often told, one filled with distortions and misrepresentations. Thomas Allen Harris’s illuminating if not entirely successful doc attempts to correct a record that for too long has been controlled by white people. Using NYU professor Deborah Willis’s 2000 book, Reflections in Black, as his inspiration, Harris delves into what he calls “the family album”—not only his own (his grandfather was a compulsive shutterbug), but the more wide-reaching American scrapbook, in which blacks were often presented as objects to be demeaned and subjugated.
It’s not a pretty picture: Through a Lens Darkly moves briskly from the invention of photography in the pre–Civil War era right up to our own more turbulent times. What we see is a constant battle between the societally sanctioned pictures of African-Americans as slaves, thieves and morons, and the regal counterimagery of activists like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, who grasped the camera’s power to change minds and further causes.
In between these extremes lies all manner of fascinating portraiture: horrifying postcards of lynchings, the vivid city-street prints of Roy DeCarava and the confrontational self-portraits of Renee Cox. There’s even some striking postmodern work, like an image of a tortured slave’s back on which the whip marks resemble the trademarked symbol of Nike. The survey the film provides is bracing, and there are plenty of talking heads to guide us through the kaleidoscope of imagery. Unfortunately, there’s also a public-television vibe to the proceedings that mutes the overall power. It’s essential info presented with little imagination.
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