In the opening shots of Charlie Ahearn’s Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, we follow the titular shutterbug as he shoots a parade: Shabazz loads film, chats up subjects, takes pictures, and sorts through his Instamatic results. It’s a logical place to start, as Shabazz’s work documents the abundant creativity of New York City’s street culture, and it’s nice to get a glimpse of the artist’s process. But the scene is also revealing in another way. Dully celebratory, hopelessly democratic and basically nostalgic, Ahearn’s film is a lot like a parade: folks plod past in a more or less arbitrary order, many nobly carrying banners, and though there are glimmers of excitement here and there, the greatest tension comes from wondering when the whole thing will end.
Director: Charlie Ahearn
Producers: Charlie Ahearn
Cinematographer: Charlie Ahearn
Editors: Charlie Ahearn
Cast: Fab 5 Freddy, Robert Garcia, Aaron Goodstone, KRS-One, Jamel Shabazz, Dave Villorente
US Theatrical Release: August 2, 2013
US Distributor: Arts Public Domain
At risk of overextending the metaphor, let me just say I don’t have anything against a good parade—I just think that they’re hard to pull off. Biographical documentary takes a very light touch, or a strong sense of story, because—as grouchy as this sounds—unadulterated adulation rarely works. Even the worthiest individuals (and I count Shabazz as one) don’t necessarily translate well to the screen, and even when they do, personality alone can rarely fill out a feature. The most successful documentary profiles, therefore, often have some kind of mystery at their center, like 2012’s Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man, or approach their subjects critically, like Jennifer Baichwal’s thought-provoking 2002 film about photographer Shelby Lee Adams, The True Meaning of Pictures.
Charlie Ahearn’s film does neither, and yet for a while, this doesn't matter. As the art world slowly recognized, Shabazz’s photographs are amazing. Just looking at them is a joy. His images of urban and black culture are strikingly composed, genuinely vivid, and historically important. As KRS-One says during his interview in the film, Shabazz’s pictures of fashionable youth and Five Percenter women tell whole stories if you know what you’re looking at. Shabazz’s own story, moreover, is largely untold and given to surprising texture: his reputation as a corrections officer, for example, got him access to subjects in his neighborhood who might not have otherwise trusted him.
In other words, Ahearn had plenty of good material to work with. The problem, as soon becomes clear, is that he doesn’t know what to do with it. Lacking focus or development, the film compulsively wanders, and its handheld, show-and-tell aesthetic, charming at first, soon grows frustrating.
This frustration is especially pronounced considering what might have been. The film might’ve worked as an essay, had it committed more fully to explication: it’s interesting, for example, when KRS-One really unpacks one of Shabazz’s pictures. Or it might’ve worked as a meditation on a changing Brooklyn, if Ahearn focused more on the big picture. It might’ve even worked as an exploration of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters—Shabazz’s pictures of that world are fascinating, and it seems like there’s a story there for the finding, had Ahearn gone looking for it. But he doesn’t, and instead of being one interesting film, Jamel Shabazz ends up several uninteresting ones.
This is probably in part because Ahearn, best known for his 1983 film Wildstyle, still the primary document of early B-boy and graffiti culture, sticks to his parade route. If the film has any focus, it’s on representing how Shabazz represented his community—on the pride evident in his pictures, and on the memories they capture for locals. Much of the film is concerned with Shabazz and his subjects considering, in brief, what he set out to photograph: African Americans representing themselves.
There’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of ground-level approach. The mutually affirming relationship between Shabazz and the community his art documents should be celebrated. And, indeed, some the film’s liveliest moments are when these longtime Brooklynites look through Shabazz’s books and reminisce about the old neighborhood. It’s here we begin to get a real sense of the monumentality of his work: alongside all the fun discussions of Adidas sneakers and beaver-skin hats at these neighborhood meet-ups, there are also gestures to the crack epidemic, gun violence, and the ongoing struggle against racial and economic inequality.
But Ahearn’s film turns away from this history. Which is understandable—it would be hard to visually recreate New York’s mean streets, and, in certain ways, politically challenging to narrate. By shying away from these challenges, though, the film doesn’t keep it real. Ahearn doesn’t take the time to visit with any of these neighborhood characters, and get fuller stories of their lives—or if he did, he chooses not to include them.
Which seems to contradict the very thing he sets out to do. Parades, it must be said, are usually local. With the exceptions of the big ticket, Fifth Avenue affairs, they’re usually a show of pride by and for a particular community. The parade Shabazz visits in the film is an African American pride parade, it turns out, and Ahearn is careful to include, near the end of his film, an old-timer griping about low attendance. Ahearn clearly intends it to be a telling moment. But wouldn’t it tell us more if Ahearn had captured the depth of a community, rather than its surface? Shabazz’s pictures do, and with much greater verve. Get one of his books instead.