The Pain and Beauty of Field Niggas: An Interview With Filmmaker Khalik Allah
“This nowhere,” begins Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts in her 2011 chronicle Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, “between dream and reality, between what one sees and what one imagines, between what is happening and your attempt to describe it, is the territory we wander while awake.”
This revelation arrives during an attempt by the author to record her dreams (“the idea was to have a catalog of the realms I sometimes visit at night, often repeatedly”) and it is this Harlem, this particular space between dream and reality, that Field Niggas, the debut documentary by Khalik Allah, occupies so masterfully.
Part street noir, part anthropological nocturne, Field Niggas is an hour-long exploration into a legendary Harlem crossing: 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. Allah has lived and breathed these streets for some time—he joined the Five Percent Nation as a teen and traveled to Harlem often, where the organization is headquartered—and was familiar with the intersection and the people which sit at the center of his film. In it, the 30-year-old New Yorker turns his camera on a group of men and women, most of them destitute drug addicts but not all, that stalk its sidewalks under the blanket of a summer night. The images—radiant in their rawness and desperation—and audio are not in sync, and the effect gives the film a sort of trancelike feeling. A trip, literally and figuratively.
125th and Lex, as it is commonly referred to by longtime residents, is infamous for being a crime-riddled hub of vice where one can score all manner of illicit drugs. It is out of this dark elixir that Allah paints a new, more humane portrait: a people in search of mercy, just looking to survive.
Gawker: Let’s jump right in. Why title this documentary Field Niggas?
Khalik Allah: Coming into the art world and the film world—I’m a photographer—I never thought that I would it would be accepted anyway. Even with this film, releasing it the way I did at first through YouTube, I was like, ‘I’m going to put out what I want to put out.’ In the past, I applied to photo competitions and film competitions and never got accepted or on any short lists, so when I chose the title, it was me saying: I don’t give a fuck about distribution, I don’t give a fuck about being accepted. The title came from the heart. More than anything, the term “field niggas” was coined by Malcolm X in a speech called “Message to the Grassroots”—it represents the rebellious slaves, the slaves who were leading insurrections and killing their masters and running away. Growing up, and learning about those types of slaves, I was always intrigued by them. I feel like the people I’m documenting in Harlem today are the modern-day field slaves. And using that word, field niggas, it makes people both attract and repel to this film. Some people want to see the film based off the title; to see if the content of the film can justify having such a title.
But for me, it’s a term of endearment. I consider myself a field nigga. Looking at people like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Toussaint Louverture, even Frederick Douglass—these were slaves who decided enough was enough, who ran away and led rebellions. I came into the game thinking I was going to be blacklisted from the get go with a name like Field Niggas. So I just came in like a rebel and put it out.
At one point early in the film, a black woman says, “125th is a prison, it’s a prison without the gates.” These are stories of hope, despair, and perseverance, and of the consequence of drug addiction. Tell me more about the people you met while filming.
We never have enough information to judge anything appropriately. Instead of trying to judge things, just accept. Acceptance comes from vision. The vision being: Ok, I don’t have enough information to judge, let me just try to see; instead of trying to analyze, let me accept. And that’s my approach with the people. Instead of analyzing them and breaking them down, I just accept them as a unified whole. In doing so, people open up to me differently. And the people I met, especially the woman you’re referring to, had extremely profound answers on the questions I spit out to them. That particular woman, I asked: ‘What do you believe happens when you die?’ The question came because— looking at her she looked so near to death—I wanted to know what her idea was of dying. She was malnourished in the street and addicted to drugs. When I saw her, the question came spontaneously. A lot of my questions happen that way. But it all starts with seeing someone on a plain, basic physical level; then we begin talking. Although they may be addicted to drugs, they’re still coherent. This is the case with many of the people in my film, and many of the people I meet in the streets: we can’t paint them all with one brush. They’re not monolithic. The homeless, the poor—they’re not a monolithic group of people; they’re all different. Just approaching them with the highest expectations—that they might have something of value to offer—reminds them that they are not their behavior; they’re not what their behavior dictates. I’m always trying to see the best in the people that I’m working with. In one respect, it lets them know where I’m coming from—that the work I’m doing is genuine—and also safeguards me from any animosity.
This particular intersection in Harlem is a well-known hotbed for drugs and for the homeless. What initially drew you to document it and the people who inhabit its sidewalks and storefronts?
When I was younger, I got retained in school. That was 8th grade, in 1998. And I used to drive around with my brother. One day I was in the backseat of his Honda thinking, ‘Whatever I do, I gotta get knowledge. I gotta get some sort of knowledge.’ I had joined the Five Percent Nation, and the Allah School is on 7th Avenue—I’m from Long Island originally—so I would come into Harlem, 125th and Lex and avoid it because I was only coming for the esoteric books that you could buy for 50 cents back then. I would see this corner and think, ‘Damn, these people are zombies. I’m gonna stay away from that.’ It’s ironic, so many years later, when I became an artist and a photographer, that this becomes the common denominator, the central meeting point for my photography and filmmaking work.
In 2010, when I became a photographer, I started shooting in the Lower East Side—for about two years—and what I was trying to do was emulate the greatest black and white photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein. And I noticed that I didn’t have my own signature, my own style. From there I tried to develop my own style. I started to shoot in Harlem and stayed out at night—and I saw results. I guess I was attracted to the area because in the LES you could walk around for hours and not find anything that too interesting to photograph. Whereas, when I got on this corner at nighttime I didn’t see any other photographers—I guess they were scared to come out—and the only other camera was the surveillance camera. I could focus on this one corner; it’s got the 4/5/6 train station so people are always coming and going, which makes for a good amount of subjects. The fact that the subjects are as gutter and visceral as they are, made me say, ‘Yo this is definitely me.’ It was also a good template for me to bounce a lot of my spiritual concepts off of; it helped develop that within me as well.
That corner means so much to me. I feel like I’m an adopted son of Harlem.
You mentioned “spiritual concepts”; how does being in the Five Percent Nation factor into the message you’re trying to get across in this film?
The Five Percent Nation is something I went through throughout my entire teenage life—it gave me a foundation. Going through Harlem, first for the knowledge instead of as an artist to take photographs and videos, helped me. The same knowledge that I was coming for by way of the Five Percent Nation—the lessons of 120 Degrees, Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet—it helped me to know how to present myself, how to be civilized, how to be fearless. That gave me a tremendous amount of discipline. Many people in Harlem, and on 125th and Lex, have knowledge of self and they know about the teachings of the Five Percenters.
Oftentimes, I’ve had to dig deep into those teachings and spit out a lesson to a person on the block just so they know that I know what time it is. Or somebody could be grilling me with the camera—Who are you? What are you doing with this?—and then I can start spitting Mathematics at them, which takes the conversation to a whole new level. It helps to break a lot of the walls and open up communication. Without me having 120 Lessons and going through the rigorous training of the Five Percent Nation, I probably wouldn’t be as durable, mentally, to do what I do. Nowadays you have people learning lessons and knowledge of self through the internet, and it’s not the same. The training I had was analogue, as opposed to the digital era. Not to say that the internet is a bad thing, but I was very hands on. Back then, guys would punch you in the face if you didn’t quote your degree properly. Not that that happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen—it just made me more serious.
I’m interested, too, in the way in which you shot the documentary. It’s visually stunning. You mentioned this earlier, how you fused two mediums—photography and filmmaking, one of which you had a background in and one you picked up later—and you’ve fashioned them into something really powerful. Why tell this story in this specific way, as opposed to traditional filmmaking or via a photo series?
Those are the tools I’d been working with, and going into the film without a budget and without people backing me financially, it gave me tremendous liberty. I said: I can do whatever the hell I want, however I want, make it whatever I want, edit it however I want in whatever timeframe I want. That just gave me tremendous creative control, which let me use my imagination as much as I wanted. The technical things I did were actually very simple; I just used them in a way that hasn’t been used in an entire documentary before.
And the film feels very free in a way that other films don’t.
It feels free because it allows the audience to participate mentally with the project. I’m not telling you what to think throughout the film; the out-of-sync audio and video enables that. With this, you’re seeing something in slow motion that’s like an abstract depiction of what you’re hearing, and what you’re hearing is in real time. That break, between audio and video, let’s you invest your own imagination into the project and participate with it. Then there’s the stylistic element: it almost helps you to forgive the situation because the film is so artistically done and the people are shot in such a dignified way that it makes them look beautiful.
That was actually one of the things I loved most about the film. The artist Kehinde Wiley creates these grand paintings where he’ll take black subjects off 125th in Harlem or off Fulton Street in Brooklyn—black people that typically wouldn’t be in European or what we consider classical art pieces—and position them in, say, a Rembrandt or Jacques-Louis David painting. He’s challenging ideas of ownership, space, and representation, but, in a way, I feel like he is also ascribing to white ideals. Field Niggas subverts that notion and says: We’re beautiful where we are; we don’t need to be anywhere else.
Coming into this project, that was my idea—to be unapologetic. The first title of the film was Unapologetic Field Niggas, but I didn’t want a title that chunky. Because if the work is unapologetic, you don’t have to say it; just put it out there. But coming into it with that mentality, it was me saying: Fuck these other depictions of beauty. I previously made a film called Antonyms of Beauty. At the time, I felt that all the young photographers were shooting beautiful things—landscapes and women with their breasts out—so I came with Antonyms of Beauty and tried to shoot the street in a way I’d never seen before. And it actually was beautiful. They weren’t just antonyms, because beauty is just really in the eye of the beholder. We don’t have to fit or change into anything to appeal to anybody. And in adopting that mentality, the film ends up blowing up and I end up becoming more well-known in the art and photography world, when my intention was to be like, Fuck the art world and the photography world. It was amazing that when I decided to do it for me, that’s when everybody else attracted to it.
So what are you working on next?
I just came back from two weeks in Jamaica; I’m shooting my new film. When I created Field Niggas, I said I wanted it to be one of three in a trilogy. The second and third film will be similar aesthetically—they’ll have a very stylistic nuance to them—but the concept will be very different. I don’t want to go somewhere else and just recreate Field Niggas. This new film in Jamaica is centered around the Maroon people. The Maroons escaped the slave ships into the mountains, and being that they were from Africa they already knew how to live off of the land. They were able to adapt to Jamaica. Til this day, they still remain in the highest altitudes of the mountains in Jamaica that are considered inhospitable to other people. I went and visited with them. The film is going to be very abstract, it’s going to be very experimental, and I’m shooting in a lot of daylight for this one. I’m trying to innovate.
My main thing: It’s not about the form, it’s about the content. The content is always the leading force, and the form should be built to house the content properly. I’m focused on the content right now. I’m getting conversations with people all across the island, young and old. I did an interview with a young girl, and I asked her: ‘What would you like to see changed for the children of Jamaica?’ And she started to talk about rape culture, and how she hoped to see it done away with. I followed up with another question, and she admitted to having been raped. She went on for ten minutes. It was powerful. It will be interesting to revisit that in the editing process. When I’m shooting I’m just capturing people’s words, trying to make it beautiful.
It’s interesting you mention that young girl’s story. When I watched Field Niggas I was thinking a lot about how most of these stories are stories of trauma, but when you’re listening to them and viewing the footage at the same time, it has this reverse effect where it becomes healing in a way, despite what you’re hearing. There is a recognition in the struggle of these people, many of whom want to do better but for one reason or another are trapped amid the ecstasy of night.
That is the proper way to see it. My form of empathy doesn’t join in another person’s suffering, and thus try to lighten their burden by joining into it. Because that’s how empathy works for most people. One person will try to lighten the suffering by experiencing that burden together. Where, with this film, the form of empathy was: “I had a death in my family” and my response would be like, ‘Well, there really is no death. Everything is eternal; that person served a purpose in your life.’ I tried to have a more optimistic response to people, which led the conversation in different direction and helped to not look down on these people if they are less. The whole point of this film was to say we’re equal; these people are equal—on the level of humanity. We’re not equal financially, or equal with our housing situations, or bank accounts, but we’re equal on the level that we are all children of the Most High. And that makes us equal regardless of the laws of man. Going into the film with my spiritual concepts intact, growing up as a Five Percenter, it made me look at everything differently. I see the impact it’s had on the work I’m doing now.
Field Niggas is screening at Made in NY Media Center by IFP until October 22. The film will also screen as part of the AFI Fest in Los Angeles in November. Additional screenings to follow.
You can view more of Khalik Allah’s work here.
[All images via the artist]