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Film Response: Through a Lens Darkly

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The film considers racist stereotypes and horrific shots from lynchings, and finds contrast and creates tension in showing African-Americans protesting such acts and attitudes in the early 20th century

"A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY," on a huge banner, reads like a headline suspended above the streets of Harlem in the 20th century.

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To describe Thomas Allen Harris’s “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” as a history of African-American photography would be accurate but incomplete. Inspired by the book “Reflections in Black” (2000), Deborah Willis’s groundbreaking and thorough excavation of a vital and neglected photographic tradition, Mr. Harris’s film is a family memoir, a tribute to unsung artists and a lyrical, at times heartbroken, meditation on imagery and identity

The film is always absorbing to watch, but only once it’s over do you begin to grasp the extent of its ambitions, and just how much it has done within a packed, compact hour and a half. Mr. Harris begins on a personal note, with an anecdote about his father, depicted in old snapshots as a handsome man with a distinctly melancholy, distracted air. We never learn too much about him, but we do travel back through the generations, spending a fair amount of time looking at formal and candid photos, many of them taken by the filmmaker’s maternal grandfather.

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In the end, a late segment on Deborah Willis, however, showcases the film’s historical urgency, while extolling the work being done to eliminate singular, white-dominant conceptions of beauty, particularly how an individual subject can’t escape a sense of themselves as the universal

In addition, when photographer Jamal Shabazz explains his struggles by saying “the gun was more readily available than the camera,” Through a Lens Darkly is at its strongest in eliding the more trite inclinations driving Harris’s personal digressions, voiceover, and largely cloying sense of dramatic aesthetics.

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