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'Through A Lens Darkly': The documentary has extraordinary imagery of African-Americans through history

'Darkly' includes images of slaves, freed black soldiers in Union uniforms during the Civil War, and the American Negro photography exhibit at the 1900 Paris World's Fair.

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An untitled photograph by Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Thomas Allen Harris, is seen in 'Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,' a film by Thomas Allen Harris.

Courtesy of Lyle Ashton Harris

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Thomas Allen Harris’s documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” states its intentions right there in the title. His contention – inspired by Deborah Willis’s book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present” – is that historically the photographic representation of black people has been severely neglected. His thesis is somewhat undercut by the voluminous amount of material he uncovers for us, stretching from the earliest days of photography. 

Harris indulges in too many personal memoir detours and overdoes the talking heads, but much of the imagery on display is extraordinary: Slaves, beseeching and accusatory, look directly into the camera; freed black soldiers in Union uniforms stand resolute. We see stills from the American Negro photography exhibit from the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, which revealed to Europe that black American families were not the savages typically depicted in the colonial nations’ exhibits.  

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The implicit question overhanging the film: Is the political impetus to present only “positive” imagery of black people an injustice to the fullest range of their experience? Grade: B (Unrated.)


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