Black America Again 5

About Bradford Young

Bradford Young is the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), and a three-time Sundance winner as the cinematographer of Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George (2013), David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), and Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011). Young has also provided cinematography for Untitled (Structures) (2012) in collaboration with installation artist Leslie Hewitt, and created multi-channel installations Bynum Cutler (2014) and REkONGIZE (2017). In 2016, Young directed two long-form music videos for Common’s 11th studio album— the award-winning “Black America Again” and “Letter to the Free,” which is featured in Ava DuVernay’s The 13th (2016).

Studying at Howard University under Haile Gerima, the acclaimed director of both experimental and militant films such as Bush Mama (1975), Ashes and Embers (1982), and Sankofa (1993), Young is a critical contemporary voice in a lineage of artists and filmmakers such as Ernest Dickerson, Arthur Jafa, and Malik Sayeed, who are similarly invested in producing if not a black aesthetics, at least what Young calls a “black intentionality,” i.e. an image-making practice that is always explicit about coming from, expressing, and leading back to blackness.

Similarly to many of the visual artists he claims as part of this lineage –not only those who were directly trained by Gerima but also those with whom Gerima worked and experimented with at UCLA such as Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell and Julie Dash among others—he too holds black music, and jazz in particular, as the pinnacle of black artistic achievement as well as a model of art-making that is at the same time a way of practicing new forms of sociality.
Young’s work seeks a visual aesthetics of black care. He is very conscious of working in a medium that has not been historically amicable to black subjects both in theory and in practice, and is committed to breaking this careless cycle. If as a cinematographer, what you see through the viewfinder is a stereotype, he has said, then change the lens.

Consistently, his visual art of black care is an intentional articulation of values and concerns that express his sensibility and specific location in relation to filmmaking as an artform and an industry. Among them, there is the practice of strategically under-exposing black skin so that it can resonate with its own shine –a practice that builds on the legacy of studies in sensitometry began with Clark, Caldwell, Jafa and Dash, among others– or a distinct comfort with “playing in the dark” he learned from Roy DeCarava, one of the still photographers he admires the most.

Bradford Young – The Visual Art of Black Care Interview from liquid blackness on Vimeo.

Selected Works

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), dir. Ron Howard
To Be Free (2017, dir. Adepero Oduye (short film)
Where Is Kyra? (2017), dir. Andrew Dosunmu
Arrival (2016), dir. Denis Villeneuve
Selma (2014), dir. Ava DuVernay
A Most Violent Year (2014), dir. J.C. Chandor
Pawn Sacrifice (2014), dir. Edward Zwick
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), dir. David Lowery
Mother of George (2013), dir. Andrew Dosunmu
Middle of Nowhere (2012), dir. Ava DuVernay
Pariah (2011), dir. Dee Rees
Restless City (2011), dir. Andrew Dosunmu
White Lies, Black Sheep (2007), dir. James Spooner
[add short films]

Black America Again (with Common) (2016)
Letter to the Free (with Common) (2016)

REkOGNIZE (2017), 3-channel video, Carnegie Museum of Art
Bynum Cutler (2014), 3-channel video, Creative Time
Untitled (Structures) (2012), with Leslie Hewitt, 2-channel video, Menil Collection

Selected Interviews

“Interview with Solo: A Star Wars Story Cinematographer Bradford Young.” Interview by ARRI Rental. May 24, 2018.

Borrelli, Christopher. “How ‘Solo’ Cinematographer Found Light in his Chicago Childhood.” Chicago Tribune. Baltimore. May, 2018.

“A Most Vibrant Year for Cinematographer Bradford Young.” All Things Considered. March 1, 2015.

“Bradford Young.” EFTI School of Photo and Cinema.

“Bradford Young – In Conversation.” Array.

DuVernay, Ava and Bradford Young. “Black Lives, Silver Screen: Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young in Conversation.” Aperture.

Fiske, Courtney. “Leslie Hewitt.” Art Forum. December 15, 2012.

King, Jamilah. “Cinematographer Bradford Young on Lighting Dark Skin and the ‘Subversive’ Power of the Black Church.” Color Lines, October 10, 2014,

Mock, Brentin. “Bradford Young Trains His Lens on Pittsburgh’s Hill District.” City Lab. June 19, 2017.

Mumin, Nijla. “The Visual Aesthetic of ‘Pariah’ – An Interview with Cinematographer Bradford Young.” IndieWire. August 17, 2015.

Neyman, Yuri. “Exploring Visual Style with Bradford Young, ASC.” Global Cinematography Institute. January 28, 2016.

Nord, Liz. “’Arrival’: How DP Bradford Young Deconstructed Sci-Fi.” No Film School. November 14, 2016.

Salovaara, Sarah. “Bradford Young.” BOMB Magazine. October 23, 2014.

Thompson, Patricia. “Bradford Young discusses the cinematography of Ava DuVernay’s Selma and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.” American Cinematographer 96(2) (February 2015),

White, Michelle. “Untitled (Structures).” Menil Collection.

Witmer, Jon D. “American Mythology.” American Cinematographer. September 2013.

Yamato, Jen. “‘Selma’s Bradford Young On The Politics Of Lensing Black Films.” Deadline Hollywood, December 21, 2014.


Haile Gerima
Bradford Young describes Haile Gerima as not only a critical and influential figure in the formation of his own style and ethos, but as central to the last forty years of black film aesthetics, having trained some of Spike Lee’s seminal cinematographers, such Ernest Dickerson and Malik Hassan Sayeed, experimental filmmaker Arthur Jafa, and contemporary black filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and Andrew Dosnumu. As one of the key filmmakers in the group of UCLA graduates that was later described as the L.A. Rebellion, Gerima understood his filmmaking as part of a process of mental decolonization; in other words, filmmaking form and style are, in his view, always tools towards the pursuit of freer forms of seeing and being in the world. Having come to study in the US from Ethiopia, brought an African diasporic sensibility to bear on Gerima’s political investments and visual language in producing foundational works such as Bush Mama, Ashes and Embers, and Sankofa.

Beginning in 1975, Haile Gerima became a professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Howard University, the only historically black college with a graduate film program. Gerima brought together the work of African diaspora filmmakers, such as Ousmane Sembene, and his fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmakers Larry Clark, Charles Burnett, and Ben Caldwell, making a claim to a black filmic tradition and one in tension if not explicitly at odds with the mainstream film industry. As Gerima says in an interview with the Washington Post, which reflects on the legacy of his pedagogy, “We try to prepare them and keep talking about the disconnects, especially in motion pictures and on top of that being African Americans, so that when they go out into the world, at least they won’t shortchange themselves in the way they should perform the tasks they happen to be in.”

Gerima cultivated and trained a group of cinematographers and directors that have defined black film aesthetics since the 1980s. Dickerson’s floating, flowing camera became a hallmkark of Spike Lee’s visual style since their early collaboration in She’s Gotta Have It (1986) through Malcolm X (1992). Sayeed is responsible for the distinctive cinematography of Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), and He Got Game (1998). And Arthur Jafa, who worked with Spike Lee on Crooklyn (1994) and Julie Dash on Daughters of the Dust (1991) to create an early attempt at his concept of “black visual intonation,” continued the lineage of the L.A. Rebellion in producing new aesthetic forms that would more adequately respond to the exigencies and specificities of black lives.

Haile Gerima Filmography
Teza (2008)
Adwa (1999)
Imperfect Journey (1994)
Sankofa (1993)
After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985)
Ashes and Embers (1982)
Wilmington 10 — U.S.A. 10,000 (1979)
Bush Mama (1979)
Harvest: 3,000 (1976)
Child of Resistance (1973), short film
Hour Glass (1971), short film

For more on Haile Gerima, see the Winter 2013 Spring issue of Black Camera, volume 4, no. 2, Close-up: TEZA

In particular Greg Thomas, “Close-Up: On Teza, Cinema, and American Empire: An Interview with Haile Gerima,” where Gerima states:

One of the most amazing things about Charlie Burnett is how much he would resurrect inner-city kids’ talent through his movies. That’s like Paulo Freire innovation! The sister who did the sound for Bush Mama, Beneva Jackson, he trained her! She was fourteen or fifteen years old! The talent of Black people, the actors, et cetera, who gave us so much energy, with- out them our films wouldn’t exist. The cinematographer for Bush Mama, Roderick Young—America was not ready to take him. He shot Passing Through with Larry Clark, too. Charlie shot some of Bush Mama, but the majority is Roderick Young, whom they disillusioned because in Hollywood he had no opportunity. He was a brilliant cinematographer, an energetic and firebrand cinematographer. When you talk about Ernie Dickerson, A. J. [Arthur Jafa], Malik [Hassan Sayeed], and Spike Lee, I traced them all back to Roderick Young because they saw all of these early Black films he shot. (102)

See also:

Belachew, T. “Close-Up: The Genius of an African Storyteller: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography of Work on and by Haile Gerima.” Black Camera, vol. 4 no. 2, 2013, pp. 144-162.

Field, Allyson Nadia, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. La Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema. Univ of California Press, 2015.


Malik Hassan Sayeed
Lemonade (2016), dir. Beyonce Knowles Carter, Kahili Joseph, Todd Tourso
The Reflektor Tapes (2015), dir. Kahlil Jospeh
Dreams are Colder than Death (2014), dir. Arthur Jafa
Belly (1998), dir. Hype Williams
He Got Game (1998), dir. Spike Lee
Girl 6 (1996), dir. Spike Lee
Clockers (1995), dir. Spike Lee
See also here

Ernest Dickerson
Double Play (2017)
The Wire (2003-2008), six episodes
Our America (2000)
Juice (1992)
Malcolm X (1992), dir. Spike Lee
Jungle Fever (1991), dir. Spike Lee
Mo’ Better Blues (1990), dir. Spike Lee
Do the Right Thing (1989), dir. Spike Lee
School Daze (1988), dir. Spike Lee
She’s Gotta Have It (1986), dir. Spike Lee

Arthur Jafa

Other aesthetic influences frequently mentioned:

Roy DeCarava

Miller, Ivor. “” If It Hasn’t Been One of Color”: An Interview with Roy Decarava.” Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990): 847-57.
Rowell, Charles H. “” I Have Never Looked Back Since”: An Interview with Roy Decarava.” Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990): 859-71.

Stange, Maren. “”Illusion Complete within Itself”: Roy Decarava’s Photography.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 9, no. 1 (1996): 63-92.

O’Meally, Robert G., ed. The jazz cadence of American culture. Columbia University Press, 1998.

DeCarava, Roy. The Sound I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme. Phaidon, 2003.

Blair, Sara. Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Ings, Richard. “’And You Slip into the Breaks and Look Around’: Jazz and Everyday Life in the Photographs of Roy DeCarava.” In: Lock, Graham, and David Murray, eds. The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art. Oxford University Press, 2009: 303-331.

Saul, Scott. Freedom is, freedom ain’t: jazz and the making of the sixties. Harvard University Press, 2009, 248-253.
Cawthra, Benjamin. Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin”, The New York Times Magazine, Feb 18, 2015 (archived elsewhere, for the time being, and referred to us by Marisa Parham during empyre conversation on liquid blackness: Formal Approaches to Blackness and/as Aesthetics

Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Roy DeCarava’s Ambient Evenings,” The Dark Room Seminar

Teenie Harris

Harris, Charles. Spirit of a Community: The Photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris. Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 2001.

Crouch, Stanley. One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris. Harry N. Abrams, 2002.

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers from 1840 to Present. Norton, 2002.

Finley, Cheryl. Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Andrew Dosunmu


See previous list (re: Arthur Jafa), and in addition:

Cubitt, Sean, Daniel Palmer and Les Walkling. “Enumerating Photography from Spot Meter to CCD.” Theory, Culture, & Society 32(7-8) (2015): 245-265.

Hornaday, Ann. “‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the Aesthetic Politics of Filming Black Skin.” Washington Post, October 17, 2013.

King, Jamilah. “Cinematographer Bradford Young on Lighting Dark Skin and the ‘Subversive’ Power of the Black Church.” Color Lines, October 10, 2014,

Latif, Nadia. “It’s Lit! How Film Finally Learned to Light Black Skin.” The Guardian, September 21, 2017.

McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching the Camera to See my Skin: Navigating Photography’s Inherent Bias Against Dark Skin.” Buzzfeed, April 2, 2014,

Sterne, Jonathan and Dylan Mulvin. “The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television.” Journal of Visual Culture 13(2) (2014): 118-138.

Sterne, Jonathan and Dylan Mulvin. “Test Images and the American Color Television Standard.” Television & New Media 17(1) (2016): 21-43.

Thompson, Patricia. “Bradford Young discusses the cinematography of Ava DuVernay’s Selma and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.” American Cinematographer 96(2) (February 2015),

Walker, Christopher Daniel. “Lighting and Photographing Skin Tones.” Vantage, March 18, 2016.

Williams, David E. “Street Knowledge.” American Cinematographer 96, no. 9 (September 2015): 38–55.

Yamato, Jen. “‘Selma’s Bradford Young On The Politics Of Lensing Black Films.” Deadline Hollywood, December 21, 2014.

Yue, Genevieve. “The China Girl on the Margins of Film.” October 153 (Summer 2015): 96-116.