Selma opens with an intimate moment between a great man and a great woman. The man is Martin Luther King Jr., played by David Oyelowo, and the woman is his wife, Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo. The great man is dealing with a minor problem, which the great woman easily and calmly solves: tying a "ridiculous" ascot tie. This is supposed to be a very human and warm interaction. We are used to seeing the great man preaching to huge crowds, being interviewed by a throng of reporters, and marching with thousands of protesters. But here in this room, alone with his wife, the giant appears to be as grumpy as the next man. In the next scene, MLK accepts the Nobel Peace Prize. If this sounds like the stuff of a run-of-the-mill Hollywood historical drama, it's because I haven't mentioned the cinematography.
The first thing that strikes you is how dark the room is. And the next thing that strikes you is how this darkness doesn't totally sink the black actors into their blackness but instead brings out the rich tones and textures of their skin—an earthy brown in the case of MLK, a porcelain-textured light brown in the case of CSK. How is this possible? One would think that black skin needs all the light it can get or else the details of the face are lost. A lack of brightness risks reducing black faces to white eyes and teeth—the very image of a Sambo or a white person in blackface. Light is the democracy of cinematography, right? It makes black features comparable with white ones. But in Selma, cinematographer Bradford Young, who himself is black, deliberately limits the amount of light we see in a space or a face, and in doing so creates a new kind of music.
The best scene in the movie happens in a very dark jail cell. MLK and Ralph Abernathy, a minister and prominent figure in the American civil rights movement played by Colman Domingo, are sitting and talking about the purpose and future of the struggle. MLK wonders if the race issue is enough. He is thinking about the many black Americans who can barely read. Even if they get their rights as citizens, there are still huge challenges to overcome. When will it ever end? One obstacle after the next. MLK is staring into the abyss, and it seems he wants to give up and surrender to life as a simple country pastor instead of a world-historical figure. Abernathy begins to recite the 26th verse of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" As MLK listens, bright rays of light from a high window fall on parts of his earth-brown skin and also on parts of Abernathy's dark-brown skin. The motion of heads, necks, hair plunging into and arising from the total blackness of the cell are beautifully composed, the interplay of shadow and light so subtle as to appear almost polyphonic. In the 1992 essay "Black Visual Intonation," the black American cinematographer Arthur Jafa (Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn, and parts of Eyes Wide Shut) argued that the cinematic equivalent of black music should be found in the way films are edited. Young seems to have done him one better by locating it within the film's visual texture.
Selma's look is as arty as Hollywood gets, and it says a lot about the director, Ava DuVernay, that she gave her brilliant cinematographer so much freedom to explore the colors of blackness on a film with a major budget and a story that, though powerful, is not original. (DuVernay had previously worked with Young on her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, which also stars David Oyelowo.) But if you want to see a much wider spectrum of Young's genius, you have to watch Mother of George, which is set in Brooklyn and concerns a newly married, and newly troubled, Nigerian couple. This film (which debuted at Sundance 2013 alongside another film he shot, Ain't Them Bodies Saints; the latter won the Cinematography Award) has no fear of the darkest spaces, the blackest bodies, and the lowest visibility; it transforms all three into a fugue of sheen, shine, and surfaces.
Even when Young's gaze turns to white actors, as in the gorgeous new feature A Most Violent Year, Young is often subjecting their faces and bodies to a visual logic that may have arisen from his experiments with black skin. A Most Violent Year is not as darkly lit as Mother of George or Selma, but when it's time for a couple to really talk about something, or when two old friends need to come clean, or when the hero, Abel (played by the handsome Oscar Isaac), is faced with a challenge that might crush his confidence, the darkness emerges and the white faces begin their black music.
Though Young's work is clearly breathtaking, it's difficult to discuss the specifics of the cinematographer's art if you're not an expert, so I called upon an expert. Sean Kirby is a great cinematographer, a good friend and colleague of mine, and an admirer of Bradford Young's work. I asked him what distinguished the tasks of lighting and photographing black and white skin. "In white skin, there is—how can I put this—not a lot of depth," Kirby told me. "White skin is more opaque. Black skin is more translucent."
I asked him what he meant by translucent.
"There is color below the color," he said. "This does not happen with white skin. White skin is just skin. In black skin, there are so many shades of black, shades of brown. You can pick up colors that aren't on the surface."
Selma and A Most Violent Year are both perfectly good films, both worth seeing. But only the former achieves greatness, because Bradford Young has been given more room to find the color below the color. Both films tell variations on well-worn movie stories. Young's camera makes them look new.