Bradford Young didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. The Louisville, Kentucky native was raised in a family of morticians and he figured he’d spend his life working in a funeral home. But when he got to Howard University, just having suffered the loss of one of his parents, he was introduced to the art.
“I was leaving home for the first time and I was looking for a community,” he explained. “A friend of mine, Montré Missouri, and another friend of mine, Kim Gaines, saw me in the hallway one day and drug me to the Howard University film office, and said, ‘You know, you’re looking a little lonely brother, you’re looking a little lost. Here goes your family here.’”
The move changed Young’s life. “I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do, in terms of filmmaking, I tried all of it,” he told EBONY. “And the one that really stuck to me was image making.”
Young’s image making has led to working on nearly 60 film projects, including Selma, A Most Violent Year, Pariah, Middle of Nowhere, and Mother of George. This year, Young made history as the first African American cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed film Arrival. While many praised the historic move, Young felt ambivalent about being recognized for his work while so many other Black cinematographers have labored without any recognition at all.
“It’s quite bittersweet,” Young admitted. “The sweet part is that there are a lot of people in the Academy that I respect, artists that I’ve looked up to and really appreciate and honor their voices as artists. So, when a group of people that I consider to be great artists come together and place your name in the bucket as someone to look out for or place your work in the bucket as a piece of work to look out for, then that’s always an honor.”
Though Young appreciates being recognized by his peers, winning an Oscar has never been his goal.
“I never even thought the Academy Awards were important,” he admitted via phone from London where he’s working on the next Star Wars film. “I always considered the Academy to be an institution that didn’t think it was important to see Black artists who were doing great work, and so to me it was never important to be honored or recognized.”
He continued: “Awards are sort of material things—there’s something to appreciate and there’s also something about it to be cautious. We’re still talking about an institution, that just last year, the pressure was put on them to be more inclusive and so-called diverse. I still feel like they still have a long way to go. If we consider the Oscars, or we consider the Academy to be an important institution there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Since the #OscarSoWhite controversy began two years ago, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (the first Black woman to hold the job) has made a concerted effort to incorporate younger and more diverse members into the body. Still, Young said it’s difficult for Black artists to praise the incremental changes given the history of the Academy.
“It’s hard for Black folks to celebrate,” he said. “So many institutions have thrown us under the bus so you get to that moment when you are given the recognition, but you’re still trying to unpack and unravel all of the frustration and anger you have with these historically, sort of, White supremacist institutions. So, it’s difficult.”
Many would relish being part of film history, but Young doesn’t want to be known as the first Black director of photography to be nominated by the Academy.
“I just want to be a Black cinematographer, but I don’t want to be the first Black cinematographer to do something,” Young said.
“There were other African-American cinematographers that came before me who, whether they wanted it or not, should have been recognized,” he said. “Somebody like Ernest Dickerson, somebody like Malik Sayeed, somebody like Arthur Jafa. These are some of the cinematographers that should have been recognized.”
“The fact that I’m the first is only a reflection of [the Academy’s] failure to see us,” Young, who’s been honored by the Sundance Film Festival, argued. “Which is our continuous struggle—just see me. If you just see me, you get to know me, then you’ll see that there have been many bodies, many spirits, many souls that should’ve been honored before.”
Britni Danielle is the Entertainment/Culture Director of EBONY. Follow her on Twitter @BritniDWrites