The title of Field Niggas, Khalik Allah‘s raw documentary, is enough alone to make you feel both uncomfortable and intrigued.
Imagine those feelings intensify once you actually get to watch the hour-long film.
In the circuits of Black comedians and hip-hop music, the fossilized references of field and house niggas, or “slaves”, aren’t necessarily rampant but not uncommon either. (Hint this line from Kanye West’s 2015 track “All Day”: “Like a light-skin slave boy…in the muthafuckin‘ house!”) But still. To use the term, lifted from Malcolm X‘s legendary 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots”, as Allah did, in such overtly modern context, is electrifying because it forms the question of: “Are there ‘field niggas’ out there? ” Grouped and shipped like cattle to hostile destinations? The big fat answer to those questions is (somewhat) yes, unfortunately.
I heard of Fields Niggas but hadn’t had the chance to view it, until last night. My alma mater of the University of Massachusetts Boston selected it as a part of their (current) roster of independent films to showcase via the UMB Film Series.
Field Niggas visually recalls the hazy yet vibrant cinematography of KIDS, Clockers, and Requiem for a Dream, as Allah sought to capture the night owls, many of whom identify as Black or African-American, of Harlem’s notoriously rough East 125th Street. (Specifically further down near the 4,5,6 trains and on the corner of Lexington Avenue). Most of the area is a lackadaisical, drug-oriented pen where many of its wanderers are not just substance abusers, but left to fend for themselves after buses associated with Ward’s Island’s mental health facilities have dropped a majority of them off by nightfall. Nearly each and every one of them of off those buses is also homeless.
Field Niggas is startling from the first frame because Allah developed a unique approach in how to present his film. You can audibly hear his subjects speak, but the audio doesn’t always match the scenes that are showing. They are purposely distorted, as while you hear the heavy gravel of a man speaking, you see images of young Black youth staring aimlessly into Allah’s camera.
Yet in this world, what you hear and what you see are more of the same and the audio acts like a guiding light to us as viewers, tourists in this hell hole. The images, to a degree, are secondary. They are important, but we’ve seen homeless people before. The same ones we often ignore. And the young Black youth just mentioned are the millennials forgotten about when the New York Post chooses to attack today’s young people as pampered. And when the New York Times wants to discuss their spending habits or ways of leisure. When watching Field Niggas, you are forced to listen to these addicts, the homeless, and the hopeless because of the production’s unaligned sequences.
For much of my viewing, I sat there in my seat often transfixed, but always with a slight furrow. The furrow wasn’t because I didn’t like the film. I knew within ten minutes of it that it was special. I furrowed because we, the audience in that UMB conference room, only knew the poverty-stricken through glimpses and I wanted to understand from my gut why in 2014, the year the footage was taken, this was happening. I don’t mean to sound naive. It’s just that the images I saw were no different than the ones in the VH1 documentary Planet Rock: The Story of Hip-Hop and The Crack Generation, solely based on the drugs epidemic that besieged the U.S. in the ’80s and early ’90s, and particularly in New York neighborhoods such as Harlem.
When the addicts spoke, even in bad English, it was furious, frustrated or lethargic and accepting. I also had a deepened perspective of Field Niggas because I lived in New York for six years. I did not live in Harlem, but had been spent time there and have walked by Lexington and East 125th. There are a few businesses left on the end of that street, like UPTOWN Magazine’s offices. And when I was on the 5 train heading home, at the time in the Gun Hill Road area of the Bronx, I sometimes would get off and go grocery shopping at Pathmark on East 125th, featured off and on in the background of the film. (It has since closed as of October 2015 leaving 200 people unemployed). I didn’t recognize specific faces but I had seen these faces before. I knew they were strung but not on substances like K2, a synthetic weed that a majority of the addicts in Field Niggas are on. I hadn’t even heard of it until I viewed Field Niggas.
Right now, Harlem is also experiencing what has already happened to much of Brooklyn and parts of Queens: the threat or the eraser that is gentrification. While still a haven of Black popular culture, businesses, and history, on the flip side of the token, a lot of Harlem’s culture and character has been lessened by gentrification and this is an added layer to the poignancy of Field Niggas.
Starbucks locations are more frequent. A Whole Foods is being built on the somewhat friendlier West side of 125th Street near the 2 and 3 train. And it will be across the street from where used to be Lenox Lounge, a bar of the Harlem Renaissance era. Lex and East 125th, for all its seediness, is one of the few areas unscathed by the clean-up brigade and is arguably one of the few areas that needed it most. The closest thing to gentrification on East 125th is a brightly lit Duane Reade pharmacy, across from a (now) shut-down Pathmark.
About 40 minutes into Field Niggas, my curiosity steamed and I took out my iPhone and Googled the movie. What did critics think of it? Impressively, many from The Hollywood Reporter to The Guardian didn’t dilute the title, staying true to Allah’s defiant desire to make people acknowledge what the disillusioned jaywalkers of East 125th experience and are a reflection of. For the HR review by Neil Young, he wrote: “Again and again, we see smoke curling out from mouths and nostrils, throughout a work which, like the films of Portugal’s Pedro Costa, seeks and finds beauty in the most unlikely of places — and thus, of course, runs the risk of poverty-aestheticization charges. Such concerns are lessened by the intensity and directness of Allah’s immersion in his chosen milieu…”
Over at The Guardian, Jordan Hoffman asked the audacious question of whether Allah’s film was a “rallying cry or poverty porn.” (Similar to how Larry Clark, who directed 1995’s KIDS was accused by critics in 1995 of promoting child-like pornography via the underage cast and its explicit scenes of sex and dialogue). Hoffman wrote: “Allah’s camera eye just drops in and stunning images of tired men and women enveloped in K2 smoke bob into focus. They are shot in close-up, lit by a mix of street lamps and 24-hour-grocery neon. The footage is much, much more than just interviews with people on the street. Their voices emerge like a chorus, with occasional reaction shots from police officers whose facial expressions range from unimpressed to full-on glowering.” Hoffman was sure to add that the film was overall “extraordinary.”
What did I think of it? Field Niggas is mind-blowing but exhausting. After awhile, you want out of this world. But the feeling comes and goes and based on when a new scene or voice appears on film, you become enraptured again, only to wake up in your own seat, shaken from such an emotional avalanche of pity, anger, grief, hopelessness, and awareness. You sincerely wonder what has become of the women and men once the movie fades to black.
Allah, a New Yorker himself, hailing from Long Island, is touring the film and his Boston stop was for UMass Boston. He is about to embark on other upcoming projects and was recently granted a fund by the New York-based production company Rooftop Films. He’s also been in talks with the coveted home of independent filmmaking, the Sundance Institute, as well.
During the post-screening Q&A with a Harvard University professor, Allah admitted that he appreciates the work of fellow Black male filmmakers Ryan Coogler of Creed and Fruitvale Station and Nate Parker who premiered his later to be released in 2016 Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation (the film earned a $17.5 distribution deal after its viewing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The highest in the festival’s history). Don’t be surprised to hear Allah’s name amongst them in the years to come. His first major film, Field Niggas, is unforgettable, despite its dour core, for the all the right reasons.