Its lit! How film finally learned to light black skin

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In lighting, makeup and camera calibration, cinema has pandered to white skin for decades. Now, a new generation of film-makers are keen to ensure people of colour look as good on screen as they should

Insecure, the HBO series currently in its terrific second season (#TeamMolly), has been garnering attention since its pilot for its refreshing look at the lives of a small group of black women in Los Angeles. Broadcast in the same slot as its precursor Girls, which showed women as their real messy selves, and before that Sex and the City, a fantasia of skipping round New York in Manolos, Insecure sits somewhere between the two. Its storylines are all too real, but it looks stylish and glamorous.

Previous incarnations of black characters on television have mainly been overlit sitcoms or overly gloomy slices of realism. Insecure is neither and its actors look like bonafide movie stars.

Insecure.
Insecure. Photograph: Lisa Rose/HBO

There is an increasing amount of chatter about tackling questions of representation onscreen which reached tipping point with the #OscarsSoWhite scandal and has been followed by a triumph for diversity with this weeks Emmy haul for people of colour. But the conversation about the aesthetics of representation what people of colour actually look like on screen is rarely addressed. Chronically bad lighting for black actors has been a problem ever since black actors first appeared on screen (and before that, to the era of blackface and minstrelry). I shudder when I think of the number of times Ive watched a beautiful dark-skinned actor transformed into an ashy sallow spectre because too many film-makers fail to tailor their practice to making that actor look as good as everyone else.

I dont appreciate seeing black folks that are unlit, 13th director Ava DuVernay said recently. If theres a dark brother, and if hes in a frame with a lighter-skinned person, you dont automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow.

But now things seem to be changing. Thanks to the likes of Insecures director of photography, Ava Berkofsky, who recently shared the tricks and tactics cinematographers can use to achieve on-screen black magic. Of these, the oldest trick in the book is the importance of moisturising the actors skin to give the lighting the most bounce (this was particularly important to Spike Lee when working in black and white on Shes Gotta Have It).

Ava
Ava Berkofsky. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Lighting should be used to sculpt, rather than bleach, an actors skin, a technique championed by Charles Mills in Boyz N the Hood in his night-time exterior shots. Although many directors lament the shift from shooting on film to digital cameras, one of the advantages is that one can digitally recreate the effects of shooting on extinct Fuji, Kodak or Agfa film stocks, which were particularly good for capturing the richness of black skin. The colour palette is key, whether in the production design or the post-production grade drawing a rainbow of colours from the actors skin itself to create something more vibrant and less concerned with being real. After all, the original title for Moonlight was In Moonlight Black Boys Appear Blue.

Berkofsky has put herself firmly in the ranks of a new generation of cinematographers who are finally giving black skin the treatment it always deserved. They include Dion Beebe (Collateral), Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station), Matthew Libatique (Straight Outta Compton), James Laxton (Moonlight) and Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave). But the DOP on everyones lips has to be Bradford Young, responsible for the look of Pariah, Middle of Nowhere and Selma, and the first black man ever to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar. Young credits closely studying the work of those who came before him including Arthur Jafa, Ernest Dickerson and Malik Sayeed.

Indeed, all of these cinematographers, including Young, trained at Howard University under Haile Gerima, who stressed the importance of accessing the vast referential universe of black art and culture. Young says: [at Howard] the question of representation was always first and foremost. When bias is built into the negative, how does that affect the way we see people of colour on screen? Theres always an inherent bias sitting over us. Weve just got to climb through it and survive, and thats whats embodied in the cinematography.

Adepero
Adepero Oduye in Pariah. Photograph: Northstar/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

This inherent bias is very real, and embedded within every technical aspect of making movies. Isaac Julien, director of Looking for Langston and Frantz Fanon (about to be re-released in a 2k remaster), says the politics of lighting are summed up in that all technologies that are produced are non-neutral. Shirley cards used by film-makers to calibrate skin tones and light, only featured caucasian models until well into the 70s (and only changed because of complaints from photographers trying to advertise chocolate or wood furniture). Another professor at Howard, Montr Aza Missouri, teaches her students that the sensors used in light meters have been calibrated for white skin. Rather than resorting to tricks, they need to manage the built-in bias of their instruments, in this case opening their cameras apertures to allow more light through the lens.

The technology of cinema has sadly always centred on the idea that its rightful subjects are white. There is no corner of cinema that is not dominated by white privilege. But in this new age of technology, at least the tools of cinematography have become equal to the imaginations of film-makers. We have moved beyond the betterment of lighter skin tones and are technically able to equally represent all skin tones the only thing holding us back is film-makers themselves. And ever so slowly, things might be pushing forward. When I watch Moonlight, Mudbound, Dope or Insecure, its not simply about black skin just appearing on screen. Its about quality, not quantity. Its about the universe of blackness appearing in all its different glorious ways. Its about moving past the light-skinned straight-haired blackness of the past, to embrace the dark skin and natural hair of our future.

Lupita
Lupita Nyongo in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: FoxSearchlight/Everett/Rex

Lets decolonise and moisturise. This is a blackness that has always been here, but has been forced to hide in the shadowy corners of film because, at best, no one knew what to do with it, or, at worst, they deemed it unworthy. Its about making that blackness look beautiful and aspirational. That is the real defiance of black skin on screen.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/21/its-lit-how-film-finally-learned-how-to-light-black-skin