Shot in a gritty boom-bap style, Field Niggas is a powerful new documentary directed by newcomer Khalik Allah. Appropriating its name from Malcolm X’s speech addressing the mentality of “house niggers and field niggers,” the New York City-based film examines the sorrowful lives of a group of transients who gather in Harlem on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Like a newfangled Gordon Parks for the post-millennial generation, Allah is unafraid of capturing the ugliness of life and lacing it with his own brand of beauty. In Field Niggas, some of the people are junkies addicted to the latest killer drug K2, a few are stick-up kids waiting for their next victim, and others are simply lost souls with seemingly no other place to go. But what they share are stories of their struggles and strives, desires and dreams, which they freely relate to the 30-year-old director.
While the hour-long film can be bleak, there are still glimmers of hope gleaming in the shadows. Field Niggas has played the festival circuit and opens today (October 16) at Made in NY Media Center by IFP for one week. EBONY.com sat down with Khalik Allah to speak about life, film and Harlem.
EBONY: The section of Harlem where Field Niggas was made has always been sketchy. What drew you to 125th and Lexington in the first place?
Khalik Allah: I used to go up there when I was a youngster to buy books. I was 14 when I started going uptown, but I always avoided that corner. Still, when I became an artist, I found myself shooting most of my photography up there.
EBONY: You grew up in Long Island, so what brought you to Harlem as a teenager?
KA: I belong to the Nation of Gods and Earths [the Five Percent Nation], and we refer to Harlem as the Mecca, the root of civilization. When I was 14, I got left back in school, and there was an education going on in those streets that I felt as though I needed. They gave me a sharp foundation.
EBONY: When did you get interested in photography?
KA: I’ve been into cameras since I was young. I took pictures of my friends skateboarding or breakdancing. When I was 14, I begged my mother for a movie camera and she bought me a Hi8 Camcorder. Again, I shot a lot of tape of my friends, but a few years later, I took an introduction to documentary class and I realized I could edit the footage, and I was blown away.
EBONY: Before you started making films, you were known more for your photography.
KA: Field Niggas came from the pictures I was taking for three years. For me, filmmaking and photography meet and overlap. That’s where I am as an artist.
EBONY: There is a beautiful grittiness about your style that I thought of as a visual equivalent of DJ Premier or RZA. Do those artists influence you?
KA: Oh yeah. I was born in 1985, so ’90s hip-hop was the golden age for me. Pete Rock, RZA and Premier were a big part of my life musically. When I was developing my style, those influences were not conscious. But my editing is very musical and rhythmic, almost like I’m producing visual music, although sometimes it’s also a visual prayer.
EBONY: Were you into the so-called hip-hop movies as well?
KA: I liked Sunset Park and Juice, but Belly changed my life. I want to study the work of [Belly director of photography] Malik Hassan Sayeed much deeper. I want to study his complete body of work.
EBONY: I know that one of your early projects was a film about Popa Wu called Popa Wu: A 5% Story.
KA: Popa Wu is RZA’s cousin. He started taking me around to the studios, hanging out with Chef, Ghost and GZA. It wasn’t just about the music; there was a real brotherhood there. But unlike others who claimed the name Wu, I never did. I wanted to be original.
EBONY: The same East Harlem neighborhood where you shot Field Niggas has recently been in the news because of the new street drug, K2. In fact, there are a few K2 addicts in the film. What do you know about the drug?
KA: K2 has been out for a couple of years now. It is readily available in stores, and for a cheap price, it messes people up. It’s basically a legal drug, but it’s all synthetic [marijuana], and the long-term affects are not known.
EBONY: In your opinion, what drove the people interviewed in Field Niggas to the streets?
KA: People are so oppressed they become depressed, which allows for drug usage and wild behavior. The system is set up for young Blacks to fail, so we always have to work 10 times harder.
KA: I think the greatest form of charity is just giving somebody time, trying to see people from a different perspective. I’ll meet somebody in the streets who might be on drugs, but I’m not going to define them or limit them to the circumstances of their experiences. Not judging them has allowed me deeper entry into their world.
For more information on the Field Niggas screening, see NYmediacenter.com.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.