It was a family photograph that sparked the civil rights movement. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, lies in a casket, his face bloated and disfigured after being brutally lynched. His mother stands behind him, gazing down at his unrecognizable face, her own face long with grief. This family picture is one of many that filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris weaves into his documentary, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. The stunning images of black families offer a glimpse into a world largely ignored by white America, an intimate world that is as tragic as it is jaunty—filled with barbecues and weddings and generations crammed together on a sofa, holding still for the camera. The film doesn't have the impact of, say, The Black Power Mixtape and veers toward dryness at times, particularly when Harris narrates his own family's story, which is vague and detracts from the voices of the photographers and historians, as well as the images themselves. But the film's saving grace is its subject, which is inherently fascinating. Photography was invented in the mid-19th century, when racial slavery was in its heyday. The camera was originally part of the Master's arsenal, although images of naked and whipped slaves quickly gave way to African Americans fashioning their own images. After gaining his freedom, for example, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass created more than 150 portraits of himself, becoming one of the most photographed people in the 19th century. The film doesn't follow us into the era of smartphones. It doesn't tell us how to interpret Obama posing for a selfie at Mandela's funeral or where to place Beyonce and Jay Z's Mona Lisa pic in the family photo album. But we leave with the sense that although African Americans have more options for self-representation, the lenses available to them are still a bit skewed, the light still a bit shadowy. recommended

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