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Black Film Center/Archive awarded 2015 NEH grant

From the IU Newsroom:

The Black Film Center/Archive at IU Bloomington received a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the project “Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization.”

The NEH has awarded $572,000 in grants to Indiana University in this current cycle, including more than $450,000 at the Bloomington campus.  Other projects receiving NEH funding at IU Bloomington include the Archives of Traditional Music, which was awarded $275,000 to digitally preserve one of the largest collections of unique ethnographic wax cylinders outside of the Library of Congress.

Poster for Richard E. Norman's lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Poster for Richard E. Norman’s lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Richard E. Norman project

The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

“The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,” said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. “Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.”

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, “The Flying Ace,” he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the “Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film” conference. (Note: Full proceedings of that conference are available online here.)

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

“Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,” said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. “This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.”

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.

In Memoriam: Phyllis R. Klotman, Founder of the Black Film Center/ Archive

Phillis R. Klotman, founder of the Black Film Center/ Archive and professor emerita in the department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, died on March 30th at her home in Manhattan.


Phyllis R. Klotman, 1924-2015

“She was one of the first to preserve black independent films, and in doing that, she encouraged us,” Charles Burnett remarked in his interview with the New York Times following Klotman’s passing. The Times’ obituary recounts many of Klotman’s contributions to the study and preservation of black cinema during her tenure at Indiana University, including: the establishment of the BFC/A, the founding of the Black Camera newsletter (now Black Camera: An International Film Journal), and the publication of Frame by Frame: A Black Filmography (1979).


Professor Klotman also conducted interviews with filmmakers Larry Clark, Kathleen Collins, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Marlon Riggs, and Zeinabu irene Davis, just to name a few. Collecting interviews with filmmakers continues to be part of the Black Film Center/ Archive’s mission, and Klotman’s transcripts and audio recordings are available on site. In 2012, following celebrations of her legacy upon the 30th anniversary of the BFC/A’s founding, a classroom and screening venue at the new BFC/A facility was named “The Phyllis Klotman Room” in her honor.

The BFC/A holdings include several photographs that document Professor Klotman’s time at IU and at the BFC/A. Below is a photo gallery of some of our favorites of Klotman with colleagues, visiting filmmakers, and other notable public figures.

Photo Gallery


Phyllis R. Klotman with Shirley Chisholm, 1973

From left to right: Phyllis Klotman, Alile Sharon Larkin, Frances Stubbs, Gloria Gibson

From left to right: Klotman, Alile Sharon Larkin, Frances Stubbs, Gloria Gibson

From left to right: Julie Dash, Monique Threatt, Phyllis Klotman

From left to right: Julie Dash, Monique Threatt, Phyllis Klotman

Camille Billops and Phyllis Klotman

Camille Billops and Phyllis Klotman

Zeinabu irene Davis and Phyllis Klotman

Zeinabu irene Davis and Phyllis Klotman

Phyllis Klotman with Maya Angelou

Phyllis Klotman with Maya Angelou

Phyllis Klotman with Marlon Riggs

Phyllis Klotman with Marlon Riggs

Klotman and Sembene0001

Ousmane Sembene and Phyllis Klotman

Phyllis Klotman with Scatman Crothers

Phyllis Klotman with Scatman Crothers

See also: 

“Phyllis R. Klotman, Archivist of African-American Cinema, Dies at 90,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 2015

Leslie Houin, “The Black Film Center/Archive: Thirty Years of Archival and Educational Progress” Black Journal 3 no. 2 (Spring 2012): 220-236.

Afrosurrealist Film Society: Conversation with IU Professor Terri Francis, Part 1

“Afrosurrealist films can look as though they’ve been buried in earth and have come up through the ocean. Afrosurrealism might be a sous-realism, a realism beneath.” – Terri Francis


Me Broni Ba/ My White Baby (Akosua Adoma Owusu, 2009)

The Afrosurrealist Film Society screening series launched at Indiana University this past November with the films of Akosua Adoma Owusu. IU film professor Terri Francis, founder of the Afrosurrealist Film Society, invited the Ghanaian-American experimental filmmaker to screen a selection of her short films for a small community of faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates from the Departments of Communication and Culture, Gender Studies, African American and African Diaspora Studies, and American Studies, among others.

The films screened, including Me Broni Ba/ My White Baby (2009), Drexciya (2010), and Split Ends/ I Feel Wonderful (2012), explore issues of diasporic identity, experiences of location and dislocation, post-colonialist space, and hair politics. As Nzingha Kendall wrote in Black Camera, “Owusu takes full advantage of the filmic form to grapple with the paradox of representing the unrepresentable—blackness, memory, and displacement—in her films. This haunting, in a cinematic sense, can be detected in the way she deconstructs the relationship between sound and image through her creative editing and assemblage technique.”


Split Ends/ I Feel Wonderful (Owusu, 2012)

In the conversation below, BFC/A Graduate Assistant Noelle Griffis discusses the films and the politics of the Afrosurrealist Film Society with Francis. Part 2 of the interview, coming next week, will focus on the “Just Another Notion: Short Films by Mike Henderson,” an upcoming screening at the IU Cinema, co-presented by the Afrosurrealist Film Society with the Underground Film Series and the Black Film Center/Archive, Friday April 3rd at 6:30 PM.

Noelle Griffis (NG): What is the Afrosurrealist Film Society?

 Terri Francis (TF):The Society represents the applied aspect of my research on experimental film. It’s a way to meet new filmmakers, find material to write about, form community and curate. It’s also a dream space — my place of idealism and creativity. A vision of what matters to me and what I would spend all my time doing if I could. Having space where I could think about movies by making them, by scratching it out frame by frame.

From a pragmatic standpoint, I want it to be a flexible platform for the screening and discussion of black experimental film; to provide a home base for filmmakers who want to screen and discuss their work; and to encourage small-scale inexpensive filmmaking.

We do have a mission statement: The Afrosurrealist Film Society is an imaginary collective of artist-intellectuals engaged with film in its varied forms and transnational histories. Animated by Amiri Baraka’s rubric Afro-Surreal Expressionism, we seek, through our art and scholarship an entirely different world, full of the fantastic, that is organically tied to this one. We draw upon an electric mash-up of black folklore, history, consciousness and location in order to engage representations and refractions of reality through film. And we rely on the natural world for surreal venues that sustain contemplation, conversation and creativity. Black Liberation. And Beauty.

Baraka modeled his idea of Afrosurreal Expressionism on poet and storyteller Henry Dumas, of whom he wrote, “Dumas’s power lay in his skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one. The stories are fables; a mythological presence pervades. They are morality tales, magical, resonating dream emotions and images; shifting ambiguous terror, mystery, implied revelation. But they are also stories of real life, now or whenever, constructed in weirdness and poetry in which the contemporaneity of essential themes is clear.”

 NG: Can you talk about the way that you became involved with Afrosurrealist Film. 

 TF: Experimental nonnarrative film is actually how I got interested in films and film study. That background informs how I look at any film. I studied in Paris off and on in the late 1990s and that’s where I discovered film and interesting things you could do with films and inspiring discussions that were happening with them. I saw Chris Harris’s thesis film at the University of Chicago when I got back from France and still/here became the first thing I wrote about beyond my dissertation. I liked that experimental film had a community and a live in-person conversation around it that was accessible to me – the filmmakers are usually there and experimental films look like something I could make and that I want to make. I’m interested in the visceral affective aspects of movies. I see them as sculptural and painterly as something that I can share space with, look at, think about and revisit. The film is actually a space of contemplation.

still/here (Christopher Harris, 2000)


NG: How did the Black Camera “Close Up” on Afrosurrealist film come about? How did this lead to the film series?

The Black Camera issue was a natural scholarly evolution of my fascination with experimental film. I just really needed to see my ideas in print and put Afrosurrealism into the scholarly marketplace. In the 10 years since seeing still/here I developed an approach to writing about film that is grounded in close formal analysis. I started teaching Kevin Everson’s work along with Akosua Adoma Owusu and of course Isaac Julien, Cauleen Smith, Bill Greaves and more—in dialogue with Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and others.

In the Black Camera issue I drew on Robin Kelly’s work on surrealism where he argues that surrealism was always black. The Afro in Afrosurrealism is a reminder and a restoration. Scott MacDonald has an important essay “Desegregating Film History” about addressing the blind spots in avant-garde film history and how it’s organized around unacknowledged whiteness.

The poet Cathy Park Hong wrote a very strong piece on whiteness in avant-garde poetry. She writes that “American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.” She is really critical of what she calls the “snake oil” of being “against expression” and “post-identity.” Her critique points out that “marginalized voices need a concept of voice, expression, identity and specificity to intervene and “alter conditions forged in history.” Asserting marginalized subjectivity and interrogating conventional history is the work of black experimental film. And that pretty much sums up my scholarly imperative.


Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987)


NG: In addition to Everson and Owusu, who are some filmmakers that embody the Afrosurrealist spirit to you? Are there connections between these films and filmmakers in terms of aesthetics, politics, or vision?

TF: Neither surrealism nor Afrosurrealism is a style, a set of criteria, an ideology, a genre, or even a coherent exploration. It is not a movement. It is an imaginary, magnetizing loosely related sensibilities, and it certainly is a modernism connected to other forms of modernism such as the Harlem Renaissance, negritude, magical realism, and what Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis called marvelous realism. All are advance guard approaches to life and society from which intellectuals and artists drew inspiration as they sought to challenge convention. We have to be open to what’s next and the “what else” and not get stuck in a pre-determined diagnostic.

I’m drawn to films like Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987) that are grounded in a clearly defined reality but approach it diagonally. Like those early surrealist films, formal strategies in Afrosurrealism include non-narrative structures with the objective of finding unexpected associations. A film like Handsworth experiments with the film essay form to get at invisible structures in society. They can make us see what’s been right in front of our eyes all along, which is really powerful.

Also, Ja’Tovia Gary started making direct animation a couple of years ago – that’s frame-by-frame painting and scratching directly on the film. She is re-working some family home movies in that fashion for a feature film. It’s an incredible dialogue because it’s both enchanting and destructive. Christopher Harris uses an optical printer and hand processing which gives his films a bluesy and tactile look. Reckless Eyeballing (16mm, 2004) moves way beyond the usual criticisms of Birth of a Nation and gets into the structures of looking, desire and beauty that govern it.


Reckless Eyeballing (Christopher Harris, 2004)


I’m currently immersing myself in Richard Fung’s work on videotape for an essay in the “Caribbean Queer Visualities” collection with Small Axe and I’m thinking Afrosurrealism might be an interesting way to stretch his work or the other way around. He is a video artist from Trinidad and based in Toronto who does experimental work on identity. Dirty Laundry (1996) and Dal Puri Diaspora (2012) both examine migration, labor and affective bonds through identity and sexuality. His appropriation film Islands tells the story of his Uncle Clive’s role in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. He asks a great question there about whether islands are so obvious that they can never be really seen—and by whom, for whom? Fung uses home movies juxtaposed with fictional performances, historical footage and talking head excerpts to queer and query conventional ways of defining Caribbean, Chinese, or Canadian histories. His film Out of the Blue tells a very familiar story about a young black Canadian man who is falsely accused of a crime because he “fit the description.” It’s a film with a lot of talking – just talking actually but it somehow demands that you look at it for subtleties of framing and performance. Fung might not seem to fit into Afrosurrealism but the way he examines cultural identity and cinematic representation and Caribbeanness, as unsettled and produced speaks to the project.

Afrosurrealism is a no-theory. More of a poem than a syllabus.

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Next week: Part 2 of the conversation will discuss more on the Afrosurrealist Film Society Screenings at IU, Mike Henderson’s visit, Blues Cinema, and More!

See Also:

Fall 2013

Francis, Terri. “Close-Up Gallery: The Afrosurrealist Film Society.” Black Camera 5 no. 1 (Fall 2013): 209-219.

Kendall, Nzingha.  “Close-Up Commentary:  Haunting in Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Short Experimental Films,” Black Camera 5 no. 1, (Fall 2013): 232-236.


In Light Film Festival 2015 Begins Today at IU Cinema

In Light Film Festival will start this Thursday, March 5th, and run through Saturday, March 7th. Two filmmaker roundtables will be held on Friday, March 6th and Saturday, March 7th.  Featured among the films is 2012’s Call Me Kuchu, an essential complement to Roger Ross Williams’ documentary, God Loves Uganda, which screened at IU Cinema in September 2014.

David Kato in CALL ME KUCHU

David Kato in CALL ME KUCHU


“The In Light Film Festival is aimed at promoting and supporting the intersections of human rights and documentary film. Documentary films have long been used as effective teaching aids and as tools for public debate on contemporary socio-political issues. ILFF aims to facilitate dialogue between professionals in the field of human- rights documentaries and the general public.” ~IU Cinema Program


3 PM The Special Needdir. Carlo Zoratti/ 84 min./ 2013

5:30 PM Call Me Kuchudir. Katherine Fairfax Wright & Malika Zouhali-Worrall/ 87 min./ 2012

8:00 PM Sepideh – Reaching for the Starsdir. Berit Madsen/90 min./ 2015


2:30 PM Watchers of the Sky/ dir. Edet Belzberg/ 120 min./ 2014

5:30 PM The Return to Homsdir. Talal Derki/ 94 min./ 2013

8:00 PM Mala Mala/ dir. Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini/ 87 min./ 2014


2:30 PM The Case Against 8/ dir. Ben Cotner and Ryan White/ 109 min./ 2014

5:30 PM Slums: Cities of Tomorrow/ dir. Jean Nicolas Orhon/ 81 min./ 2015

8:00 PM Reporterodir. Bernardo Ruiz/ 71 min./ 2012

The March 6th and 7th roundtables will run from 12:00-2:00 PM, and will expand upon the films. Please encourage your students and classmates to attend the screenings and participate in the roundtables.


All events are free and will be held at the IU Cinema. Space at the roundtables and film screenings are limited; please direct any group ticketing requests to

If you have any questions about the festival please feel free to visit the In Light Film Festival website or contact


Archival Spotlight: Rediscovered Maya Angelou Series “Blacks, Blues,Black!”

In 2009, Alex Cherian of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive found an unidentified 16mm  reel in a can simply labeled “Dr. Angelou.” His inspection of the film revealed stunning color footage of Maya Angelou touring the neighborhood of Watts and speaking with another woman, an activist and scholar, about the history of race riots. Though it was discovered in the KQED collection, nothing on the can or in the footage offered any information about the material’s source.

188781 MaryJaneHewitt

In a recent interview, Cherian said that he was curious about the identity of the other woman in the clip and eager to find out where the footage came from. After asking around about Angelou’s television appearances, some colleagues mentioned that they had memories of a public television series called “Blacks, Blues, Black!” that she had hosted in the late 1960s. Yet there was nothing with this title in the KQED collection, and he came up short in his many calls to universities and libraries in his search for the program. Calls to Dr. Angelou’s office revealed that they were also eager to recover the series, but  had no idea if it still existed. “At this point,” Cherian said, “I was wondering if it had been destroyed.”

Alex Cherian at work

In 2013, Alex placed a call to the Library of Congress and sure enough, a search located the title “Blacks, Blues, Black!” in the database, but there was a hitch. “The Library of Congress couldn’t tell me anything about it,” said Cherian. The collection was a deposit by WNET, meaning that it was not for public use. Contacts at WNET confirmed that they had deposited the 10-part 1968 series on two-inch videotapes, but as far as they knew, nothing had been done with them since. To complicate matters, they weren’t really sure who held the copyright. Cherian offered to have the television archive re-master the tapes, and perhaps the show’s credits would then give insight into the copyright holder. From there, the archive raised the funds needed for the transfer in under a year through licensing fees from local commercial work. Upon completion, NET agreed that KQED was most likely the holder of the copyright, and the digitization initiative moved forward.

Two weeks before Dr. Angelou’s death, Cherian once again contacted her office assistant Mrs. Patricia Casey, who relayed the message that Angelou was “over the moon” about the rediscovery of her series.

Cherian discovered that the woman speaking with Dr. Angelou in the first fragment (which turned out to be from episode 9) was Mary Jane Hewitt of UCLA. He hopes that Dr. Hewitt will have a chance to revisit her conversation with Dr. Angelou.

Blacks, Blues, Black! is a fascinating document of a brief period of time, following the assassination of Dr. King, when a politicized black perspective found a place on the public airways. Its rediscovery places it in conversation with other shows from the same period like Soul! And Black Journal; programs that Devorah Heitner noted in her recent book Black Power TV, “created both local and national ‘black public squares’ on the air” (15).

In the series introduction, Dr. Angelou explains that much of American culture and society—ranging from music and literature to gesture and affectation—is rooted in, or has been taken from, African Culture. The program’s focus is uplift and education through Afrocentrism and a “Black is Beautiful” outlook, cultural movements associated with this late-1960s moment. At the same time, Angelou and Hewitt’s historically-situated discussion of the complexities of racial oppression and rioting continues to resonate (#fergusonsyllabus).

The full series is available through the Bay Area TV Archive’s digital collections.

For more on the rediscovery of the series, see the SF State News coverage: “Classic African American culture series rediscovered”

If you have any information regarding “Blacks, Blues, Black!” contact Alex Cherian at All information will be added to the series record within the Bay Area TV Archive.

~Noelle Griffis

Visiting Filmmaker Zeinabu irene Davis Kicks Off The “Black Silence” Film Series on Friday 2/20

Zeinabu irene Davis, a filmmaker and professor at UCSD, will be in Bloomington to present her 1999 feature film, Compensation, at the IU Cinema on Friday, February 20, at 6:30 PM.  This screening is free but ticketed.

Spirits-of-RebellionEarlier on Friday at 1:00 PM, Davis will be at the BFC/A in Wells Library 044 to present and discuss clips from her documentary work-in-progress, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film at UCLA, and her 2010 documentary short, Momentum: A Conversation with Black Women on Achieving Advanced Degrees. If interested in attending the 1PM event, please RSVP to as seating is limited.

 Also during her visit, Davis will meet with students in CMCL instructor Russell Sheaffer’s class, C335: Production as Criticism: DIY Filmmaking, and with student leaders of campus diversity organizations.

compensation_front Compensation, Davis’s first feature, presents two unique African American love stories between a deaf woman and a hearing man, both set in Chicago a century apart.  Inventive use of sign language and intertitles makes the film accessible for deaf and hearing audiences.

Davis’ visit will commence the two-part series “Black Silence: Films by Zeinabu irene Davis and Charles Lane” at the IU Cinema. Decades before The Artist sparked an international silent revival, two independent features—Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories and Zeinabu irene Davis’ Compensation—bookended the heyday of the Black New Wave with bold formal experiments incorporating markers of silent cinema into contemporary explorations of friendship, social inequality, and Black experience. Davis and Lane’s films, which both evoke the silent era by choice, will each be paired with a short film that is silent by technological necessity.

Davis began her filmmaking career as a member of the L.A. Rebellion—the first group of African American filmmakers to graduate from UCLA’s film school. The first films made by artists in the group, known as their “Project One” films, were silent 8mm or 16mm shorts. These films made use of the limitations and possibilities of silent, small-gauge filmmaking to explore issues and everyday realities relevant to African American audiences.  Compensation will follow Daydream Therapy (1977), the “Project One” film directed by fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Bernard Nicolas. Filmed in Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey, this short film poetically envisions the fantasy life of a hotel worker whose daydreams provide an escape from workplace indignities, set to Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny.”


Sidewalk Stories tells the story of a modern day “tramp” and his unlikely friendship with a lost child. Lane pairs the playful, comedic charm of Chaplin with the often harrowing social realism of Lionel Rogosin to explore class relations and homelessness in late 1980s New York City. Lane remains faithful to silent cinema style, while exploring themes of race and social inequalities that were largely absent throughout the American film cannon. 220px-Natural_Born_Gambler

Lane’s film will follow early comic star Bert Williams’ A Natural Born Gambler (1916). The rare silent era film to be produced and directed by an African American will provide a point of comparison, as well as a striking point of departure to Lane’s feature. Williams’ performance reflects his vaudeville persona, which made use of stereotypes that appealed to mostly white audiences (cheating, trickery, buffoonery, and heavy minstrel dialect); at the same time, Williams’ comic gifts and leading role (both on screen and behind the camera as writer and director) made him a beloved and impressive figure during a time when African Americans were denied such recognition.

The print for A Natural Born Gambler is preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. Thank you to the Museum of Modern Art Film Preservation Center for the generous loan of their 35mm print. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by IU Jacobs School of Music student Shawn McGowan.

postcard_backThanks to Zenabu irene Davis for the use of her personal 16mm print of Compensation as held in trust by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The Digibeta of Daydream Therapy is also being provided by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Additional Details on the IU Cinema website and the BFC/A website.


Casting Natural Light: A Discussion with Spike Lee’s Cinematographer Daniel Patterson

The BFC/A blog welcomes guest contributor, Terri Francis.  Professor Francis is a scholar of cinemas in the black diaspora, particularly independent black film, Caribbean film and Afrosurrealism. She will offer her course Spike Lee’s Filmworks in the spring 2016 semester through the IU Media School. Meanwhile see her Pinterest archive for Spike Lee’s Filmworks here.

Casting Natural Light: A Discussion with Spike Lee’s Cinematographer Daniel Patterson 

Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

By Terri Francis

Daniel Patterson’s work is on television every night of the week on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, because he photographed the Spike Lee-directed opening sequence. But do we really see the cinematographer’s craft?

Naturally, we see the cinematographer’s work the entire time we are watching a movie but we tend to attribute the images to the director or else we look right through them.

Let’s talk with Patterson about the work that directors of photography do, how he approaches his craft, and the look that he brought to Spike Lee’s “newest hottest” Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014).

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures


Terri Francis (TF): When or how did you first become aware of and fascinated by photographs? 

Daniel Patterson (DP): I grew up watching and loving movies. My first memory of being aware of the specific craft of photography, I cannot say I actually remember. It had to have been a Spike Lee joint, probably School Daze: the music, the color, the movement, choreography, and production design. I had no idea at the time, but my visual appetite and sensibility were being activated.

TF: Was there a particular moment when you become taken with cinematography? 

DP: My first film experience did it. On 25th Hour, I watched the DP and Spike make decisions. At the time, I thought Rodrigo [Prieto] was some kind of mad scientist genius. My first feature film experience made me want to demystify the process of filmmaking and cinematography, for myself, and anyone else who I could teach.

TF: For our students, what exactly is the role of the cinematographer as you see it? What do you try to bring to this role?

DP: The cinematographer helps bring the director’s vision to life using the moving image. [This includes] the choice of camera, choice of lenses, camera angles, camera movement, choreography within the frame, [and] color palette choices. We help the director visually construct what is in his or her head. Cinematographers are technicians and creative, essentially utilizing all of our knowledge and experience to make the dream a “reality.”

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures


TF: Now that I’ve seen your work in Out in the Night, Gun Hill Road, Evolution of a Criminal, Newlyweeds and now Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, I’m really curious about how you apply your take on cinematography in your features, and how it differs from your work in documentaries: Do you approach documentary differently from fiction? What about in a doc like Evolution of a Criminal, which includes dramatized sequences as well as the interviews?  You talked about this a little bit in your Shadow and Act interview so maybe you could expand on that?

DP: I do not know what I said to Shadow and Act. What I can say now is this: Documentaries are narrative. Fictional features are narrative. Two different types of storytelling, but it is still all storytelling. In both instances I must talk with a director about visuals. How do we want each beat to feel, each scene to feel, each moment to feel? The design/visual language differs, depending on the style. I try to approach each film like, “how do we tell this story.” The reality is, in documentary, you get limited takes–generally one take. My improvisational skills are used a lot more while shooting documentary [and] I get to be production designer of sorts, as well DP, 1st AC, camera operator, media manager/downloader. A lot of the docs I’ve done have been crews ranging from 2-5 people. Everyone wears more hats while in production. In fiction, you can have an actor die as many takes as you need. All in all, similar ingredients go into telling a story, you just tend to have less time and takes, essentially making it for less equipment and crew. [Speaking] from my indie world experience. I am non-union.

TF: Would you say your cinematography is a kind of authorship, where your stamp is on the movie, or are you more facilitating the director’s vision? Or maybe the screenwriter’s or actors’? 

DP: DPs should support the vision of the director. We should also always have creative input. Both. Both should be there always. Filmmaking is like cooking. You need the right ingredients at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Each dish we prepare is different and always is subject to the desired affects. Who is our audience? What flavors do they enjoy, or what might they enjoy that they have not tasted?

TF: What’s your relationship to editors? Do you watch daily rushes or do you focus on capturing the image and taking day by day?

DP: I do not edit. I watch dailies every day on a feature film. We try to. Sometimes time does not allow. After the editor does his job, I love putting the finishing touches in the colorgrade. Colorgrading happens after the edit.

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures


TF: Spike has worked with some terrific cinematographers like Ernest Dickerson and Arthur Jafa in close collaborations. How did you connect with Spike? How would you describe your collaboration? 

DP: My first film set was a Spike joint. I also went to NYU graduate film school, and Spike Lee is a professor there and he is artistic director for the grad film program.

I took on his plans with Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. Spike is amazing because he knows what he wants… after we get the “necessities,” we play. His creative collaborative openness as a director, after all these exceptional filmmaking years, is awesome. I appreciate it a lot because I often work with young new directors who are no-Spike-Lee.

TF: How much did you talk about the movie before you got the job? And how did you discuss the film? How did Spike communicate what he wanted—or did he? Could you give us an idea of how that all happened?

DP: We talked a lot…a lot of conversations. Spike also told me some films to check out.

He called me late on a Friday night and asked me to DP. I said yes. I thought I was dreaming.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures


TF: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is more like a literary adaptation than a literal remake. How much did you as the cinematographer look at or think about Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess? Were there certain must-haves? Anything that inspired you? Or things that you really wanted to avoid?

DP: Sadly, I have never seen Ganja and Hess…though it is on my list of movies to watch. My professor at NYU, Charles Blackwell was a camera operator on Ganja and Hess. I like to approach films open, and truth is that time did not allow for me to watch many films before we started. We shot the film in 16 days, i.e. we did everything FAST.

TF: I’m surprised seeing Ganja and Hess wasn’t part of the process. Makes sense though! It gives you more freedom to elaborate and imagine from Spike’s script. And you can respond to the two environments where the movie is set. Am I on the right track?

DP: Seeing Ganja and Hess was 100% on the list of films the director gave me to see in pre-production. The unfortunate fact that I was unable to see it was supplemented by the freedom to imagine from the script.

TF: I noticed that the red blood isn’t that red–like a bright red, which is more naturalistic. Right? Was that a decision on your part? And if so what was the thinking there?

DP: I love naturalism. The blood not being poppy was for the reasons you stated. That was part was me. Yes I was thinking dark and naturalistic regarding the blood.

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

TF: How would you describe the overall color palate for the film?

DP: Color: naturalism, naturalistic. More colorful and lush on Martha’s Vineyard.

We added grain/grit to NYC. Also we made it less saturated in NYC. The opening NYC sequence was meant to be special, no grain, not so heavy with the de-saturated colors

Those decisions had to do with Dr. Hess and where he is mentally and emotionally, scene to scene, location to location, beat to beat.

TF: The image that has stayed with me is a shot of the first woman Hess picks up where she has lipstick on her teeth. I guess echoing blood. Also the character was great!

DP: Great character! That shot stays with me too.

TF: Is there anything you want to say that I didn’t ask?

DP: I just want to say that we are in the midst of exciting times in filmmaking. New and more affordable quality technology allows stories to be told by people who may not have had this opportunity without it. I look forward to the audience experiencing all the new cinematic flavors and cinematic languages that are to come. Thank you.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is available online via Vimeo ahead of its theatrical release on February 13, 2015. The new Spike Lee Joint revisits the late Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess as a literary source but it is not a shot-for-shot remake of the 1973 indie gothic film. Set on Martha’s Vineyard and in Red Hook, Brooklyn Da Sweet Blood of Jesus seems to connect with Red Hook Summer, perhaps beginning where the 2013 film ended. Planned Super 8, a format featured prominently in Red Hook Summer, did not make the cut for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Some of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’s most memorable moments emphasize naturalistic lighting and Patterson seems particularly skilled at framing intimate scenes with an improvised feel that reveal a character’s vulnerability and introspection.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, (re)introduces a cast of rare middle-class black diaspora characters into contemporary American cinema while exploring various addictions including lust, lies, greed, social status, and religious belief.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Through Lee’s Kickstarter campaign to fund Da Sweet Blood of Jesus he not only brought the public into the filmmaking process, but he also opened up the usually hidden inner-workings of how movies get made and get seen. If Spike Lee, award-winning director of over 30 groundbreaking films in multiple genres, has to crowdfund then what is going on in Hollywood? In this film and in its paratextual materials, Lee elevates entertainment media to platforms of critical discussion about film and culture.

Patterson says he enjoys the collaborative process between a director and a cinematographer as he works to adapt and learn how to work with that particular director. A visual craftsman, he is drawn to a story by the narrative: “I read the script and if I feel the story, if it’s something I’m interested in seeing I say let’s talk. I talk to the director about his or her vision and we can take it from there.” See Patterson’s interview in Studio A, a film colloquium at George Mason University here.

Patterson and his NYU peers have cultivated their network through continuing to collaborate after graduation. Filmmaker and former classmate Darius Clark Monroe (who visited IU Cinema in fall 2014) said of Patterson, “I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with DP on 5 projects (Shorts: Testify, Midway, Train, and Dirt; Feature: Evolution of a Criminal), spanning the last decade. Beyond his technical expertise, and this may sound strange, but I love the fact that Daniel is a great observer of human behavior and the human condition. He’s a people watcher and a great listener. Daniel has traveled all over the world, observing, shooting and processing the phenomenon that is this universe and the miracle that we call life. His spirit and perspective are invaluable to our creative process.” Patterson and Monroe’s next collaboration is a feature called Year of our Lord – about a Brooklyn couple whose son may or may not be the second coming of Christ. Train and Evolution of a Criminal feature naturalistic lighting and a willingness to explore moral ambiguity and human frailty.

Tech Specs for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Camera: SonyF55 using Sony lenses.

Lighting: HMIs KinoFlos, various tungsten units, and sometimes 0% film lights.

Color Grading: Postproduction at Nice Dissolve

Features Filmography for Daniel Patterson

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee, 2014

Evolution of a Criminal, directed by Darius Clark Monroe, 2014

Out in the Night, directed by Blair Dorosh-Walther, 2014

Newlyweeds, directed by Shaka King, 2013

Gun Hill Road, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2011


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