Montré Aza Missouri, an assistant professor in film at Howard University, recalls being told by one of her instructors in London that “if you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light. It was never an issue of questioning the technology.” In her classes at Howard, Missouri says, “I talk to my students about the idea that the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral.” Missouri reminds her students that the sensors used in light meters have been calibrated for white skin; rather than resorting to the offensive Vaseline solution, they need to manage the built-in bias of their instruments, in this case opening their cameras’ apertures one or two stops to allow more light through the lens. Filmmakers working with celluloid also need to take into account that most American film stocks weren’t manufactured with a sensitive enough dynamic range to capture a variety of dark skin tones. Even the female models whose images are used as reference points for color balance and tonal density during film processing — commonly called “China Girls” — were, until the mid-1990s, historically white. In the face of such technological chauvinism, filmmakers have been forced to come up with workarounds, including those lights thrown on Poitier and a variety of gels, scrims and filters. But today, such workarounds have been rendered virtually obsolete by the advent of digital cinematography, which allows filmmakers much more flexibility both in capturing images and manipulating them during post-production.
Whether working on film stock for Dee Rees’s “Pariah,” high-definition video for Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” or with digital Red cameras for Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” and “Mother of George,” Young is finding a newly rich visual language, one that’s simultaneously straightforward, soft, stylish and intimately naturalistic. His work with Dosunmu — for which Young won the Sundance cinematography award this year — is especially expressive, with the camera coming in and out of focus and often capturing the actors in moments of stillness, like works of sculpture. “I was trying to be assertive with the imagery as flamboyant, space-age and assertive as African American textiles have been for 10,000 years,” Young explains, adding that he lit “Mother of George” to accentuate blue skin tones and illuminated scenes from above, to suggest natural sunlight. “It takes us back to Tuaregs and Niger and nomads, because the people in the film are kind of like nomads,” he says. “That’s why the top light is always so cool, and their hands are always stained with something. Because that’s what nomadic people do.”