Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Cahiers du Cinema's Top 10 Movies of 2014: 'Goodbye to Language,' 'Under the Skin,' 'Love Is Strange' Cahiers du Cinema's Top 10 Movies of 2014: 'Goodbye to Language,' 'Under the Skin,' 'Love Is Strange' Daily Reads: The Epic Uncool of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Career, How Scarlett Johansson Subverts Her Good Looks and More Daily Reads: The Epic Uncool of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Career, How Scarlett Johansson Subverts Her Good Looks and More 'The End of the Tour' Sundance Reviews: Jason Segel Impresses as David Foster Wallace 'The End of the Tour' Sundance Reviews: Jason Segel Impresses as David Foster Wallace Why the Unanimous Praise for 'Boyhood' Is Bad for Film Criticism — and for 'Boyhood' Why the Unanimous Praise for 'Boyhood' Is Bad for Film Criticism — and for 'Boyhood' 'Girls' Outrage Tracker: Season 4, Episode 1, 'Iowa' 'Girls' Outrage Tracker: Season 4, Episode 1, 'Iowa' Now Streaming: 'The Interview' and Other Movies That Didn't Get Us Threatened Now Streaming: 'The Interview' and Other Movies That Didn't Get Us Threatened 'Strange Magic' Reviews: Yup, That's Late Period George Lucas, All Right 'Strange Magic' Reviews: Yup, That's Late Period George Lucas, All Right 'Going Clear' Sundance Reviews: A Scorching Takedown of Scientology 'Going Clear' Sundance Reviews: A Scorching Takedown of Scientology Not at Sundance? Watch 14 Festival Films Via Sundance's #ArtistServices Not at Sundance? Watch 14 Festival Films Via Sundance's #ArtistServices David Bordwell Shows How Aspect Ratios Matter David Bordwell Shows How Aspect Ratios Matter Love or Hate 'American Sniper,' We're Brought Together By Its Bad Fake Baby Love or Hate 'American Sniper,' We're Brought Together By Its Bad Fake Baby 'Girls' Outrage Tracker: Season 4, Episode 2, 'Triggering' 'Girls' Outrage Tracker: Season 4, Episode 2, 'Triggering' The Scrambled Sexuality of 'Frozen's "Let It Go" The Scrambled Sexuality of 'Frozen's "Let It Go" Meet the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Film Criticism Fellows, 2015 Meet the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Film Criticism Fellows, 2015 Daily Reads: Movie Monsters That Look Like Genitalia, Why It Feels Like There's Too Much TV and More Daily Reads: Movie Monsters That Look Like Genitalia, Why It Feels Like There's Too Much TV and More 'Disney Deaths' and 'Big Hero 6': How Children's Stories Process Loss 'Disney Deaths' and 'Big Hero 6': How Children's Stories Process Loss 'Dope' Sundance Reviews: A Smart, High-Energy Comedy 'Dope' Sundance Reviews: A Smart, High-Energy Comedy How Kids Change the Way Critics Watch Movies, Why It's Hard to Fight for Gender Equality in Hollywood and More How Kids Change the Way Critics Watch Movies, Why It's Hard to Fight for Gender Equality in Hollywood and More 'Z for Zachariah' Sundance Reviews: M for Mixed 'Z for Zachariah' Sundance Reviews: M for Mixed First Reviews of Johnny Depp's 'Mortdecai': Scraping Bottom With a Waxed Moustache First Reviews of Johnny Depp's 'Mortdecai': Scraping Bottom With a Waxed Moustache

Why Discussing '12 Years a Slave's Cinematography Is Better Than a "Conversation on Race"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 21, 2013 at 1:51PM

Rather than a nebulous "national conversation," '12 Years a Slave' sparks a discussion about racial bias built into the machinery of filmmaking itself.
2
Slave

There's an old gag -- old enough, as the Coen brothers might say, to have whiskers on it -- that everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. The same might be said of the race. Despite frequent calls, most recently in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, to convene such a "national conversation on race," it never quite seems to start. Partly that's because for most non-white Americans, that conversation began the day they were born; the idea that race doesn't already inform every aspect of public life is part of the problem. But it's also because a "conversation about race" is like a war on terror, so nebulously defined that it's it's impossible to know when it starts and when it ends.

12 Years a Slave is the latest cultural milestone that's it been hoped might jump-start such a conversation, and in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday does an excellent of turning that vague imperative towards concrete manifestations. Looking at 12 Years and Mother of George, as well as such recent films as Fruitvale Station, The Butler and Baggage Claim, she looks at how directors and cinematographers are using new technologies to change the way black actors, and black skin, are represented on screen.

Although we naturally assume technology is value-neutral, Hornaday points out that there were biases built right into the raw film stock, which was geared towards representing pale skin tones. 

As 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film's premiere there, "I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin."

I doubt this is an issue most white viewers have ever considered; I certainly hadn't until Daughters of the Dust director Julie Dash visited my college and discussed her preference for Fuji stock, which she found more sensitive not only to the superficial colors of African-American skin but the undertones beneath.

'Mother of George'
'Mother of George'

In the article, Mother of George D.P. Bradford Young, who won Sundance's cinematography prize for film and also shot the similarly rapturous Ain't Them Bodies Saints, says he was trying to be "as flamboyant, space-age and assertive as African American textiles have been for 10,000 years." It's startling to see how different Mother of George's star Danai Gurira looks here than on The Walking Dead, not only because she's in the context of a Nigerian community in Brooklyn, but because her skin seems almost to glow from within. But perhaps the key quote, and certainly the most amusing, comes from Anastas Michos, who in Freedomland had to make Samuel L. Jackson and his alabaster-skinned costar visible in the same frame: "You had Julianne Moore, who has minus pigment in her skin, and Sam, who's a dark-skinned guy. It was a photographic challenge to bring out the undertones in both of them." Michos eventually used the digital intermediate to tweak the color timing on each of his subjects individually. It's too bad there's no DI equivalent for the real world.

This article is related to: From the Wire, 12 Years a Slave, Mother of George, Steve McQueen


E-Mail Updates