Cinematographer Henry Adebonojo faced a particularly unique challenge when director Raoul Peck tapped him to work on his film I Am Not Your Negro. The documentary, based on the writings of author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Largely comprising historical footage and old photographs, the film needed Adebonojo to create imagery that would lift and support the narrative without overpowering it. His shots—slowly moving images of New York at night, elevated train tracks, the moss-covered trees and swamps of the Deep South—evoke Baldwin’s journey as described in the film. Adebonojo also crafted beautiful motion portraits to make real the faces of those still affected by the racism Baldwin railed against. All told, it was a monumental challenge, handled with a perfectly light touch and aided by the confidence in composition and content Adebonojo has been developing since he first picked up a camera.
“I started taking pictures,” he says, “and making mistakes and trying to learn from the mistakes and so on. I developed an awareness of the mechanics of taking photographs and composition at the same time. But then that awareness all of a sudden transferred to film. I had always watched films as a kid—like, literally every weekend a trip to the movie theater—but it was always just in the context of entertainment. But with my newfound interest in photography, I started seeing movies differently. I became way more aware of photography in movies as a result. Films like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now were films that I watched with a completely different eye than I might have watched films prior to that. I was in college at the time, not film school. I graduated law school, and then I’m out in the working world, and this curiosity about filmmaking is there and it won’t go away. So I inquired about the film industry in New York and was introduced to the person who directed the first film that I worked on, which was a police training film. I was a production assistant, and that began my involvement in the film industry, with a certain knowledge all along the way that I was going to be a cinematographer.”
A young artist today would trace a different trajectory, though Adebonojo says the technical revolution is nothing new in the context of the history of the medium.
“First and foremost,” he says, “I think you have to approach this from the point of view of passion. If there’s money to be made, it will be made along the way, but you have to be prepared for a bumpy ride. This business has transitioned at least three different times in the time I’ve been in it, and with each transition there’s a certain amount of upheaval, and you have to be able to fight your way through to whatever the next phase is; always pay attention to the technology. If you understand the long arc of photography, from the early days of photography to the present, changes come pretty rapidly.
“We think these changes are happening rapidly,” Adebonojo continues, “as if this is the first time. But if you go back to the early days of photography, there was the same degree of rapidity and changes, whether it was the ability to fix an image, whether it was lens technology, whether it was how the cameras themselves were built, and so on and so forth. Change is always something that has happened pretty rapidly in image capture. Once manufacturers seem to have put their finger on something that works, something that the public wants, the changes come fast and furious. So you should always have a certain level of awareness of changes that are happening in technology.”
ADEBONOJO ON THE FILM’S SHOOTING PROCESS. “We did two different batches of shooting. The portraits, that was the second phase of shooting. Raoul was in New York with me for that. The first phase of shooting was a week’s worth of B-roll footage around New York. Raoul wasn’t here for that, but it was like he was with me because he had given me every imaginable support that I could expect from him if he were present, but at the same time it was refreshing to be turned loose, to go and execute what he wanted. It’s like having a safety net. He gave me a safety net, knowing that if I stumbled I’d be caught. But then also trusting you enough to send you out there without him being present. I had shot some location photos for him when I was scouting, and his feedback on those location photos gave me a sense of what he was looking for, at least in terms of composition and so on. And then he just reinforced for me what he wanted if there was any movement happening.”
More than simply understanding the technology and the context in which it evolves, however, Adebonojo says it’s most important that young image-makers continually work to refine their craft and set their vision apart.
“I say to young people today, always be honing your visual identity,” he stresses. “Always be looking for your own particular voice, learn your own way of seeing. It’s good to have references, it’s good to know the history of photography, but how do you develop your own voice within that? And I always encourage them to carry a camera with them, at the very least a still camera. An iPhone isn’t good enough. You should have a still camera where you’re actually making mechanical choices about how you’re exposing an image, I believe, so that you’re not doing the same thing everybody else is doing. Because, guess what: If everybody is putting their iPhone on auto setting and shooting, yeah, you can learn about composition that way, but what I find is the very process of making adjustments forces you to slow down and think about the image you’re making, which is why shooting film is still such an exhilarating experience for some people, even in the digital era.”
ADEBONOJO ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS FILM. “I do hope and pray that people get to see this film, and most of all for James Baldwin, really, because I think sometimes we speak in mixed metaphors or mixed messages and all this sort of thing, and I think it’s hard to deny the clarity of his words in discussing some of these issues that we continue to struggle with. And, maybe, who knows what things would be like if we had James Baldwin with us, but at the very least we have his words and his thoughts. And it’s just great that Raoul was able to make this film and introduce him to a new audience. There are people who are familiar with Baldwin who were reacquainted with him and found things they never knew, and there are people who knew absolutely nothing about Baldwin, and now they know who Baldwin is. I hope it continues to grow in interest and adds to the dialogue we have as a society. And, hopefully, too, it speaks to the power of storytelling, because one last thing. A lot of times I do documentaries, and you do one series of interviews after another of all these voices contextualizing a particular event or a particular person, and so on and so forth. Raoul didn’t want any of that. As far as he was concerned, James Baldwin didn’t need contextualizing. So it was refreshing to be a part of a story that needed images to build the story as opposed to sitting people down and shooting them beautifully and having them talk about this person or this event. It doesn’t happen very often in documentary filmmaking, so it was a delight.”
With Adebonojo’s robust knowledge of image making, it comes as no surprise that he’s a talented still photographer as well. One can easily draw connections between his portfolio of portraits and images of jazz musicians to the moving pictures in I Am Not Your Negro.
“Cinematography is my bread and butter,” Adebonojo says. “Occasionally, I get asked to do still assignments, but not nearly as much as I’d like to. But I always bring a camera, even when I’m shooting documentaries or anything else, I bring a still camera with me. Because I’m always going to take some pictures, just for my particular purposes.
“It’s no cliché at all that as an artist,” he says, “in developing your sensibilities you should embrace any and every medium out there. For me, I love paintings, especially seeing them in person as opposed to seeing them on a computer or in a magazine. And so I think in color in that way, more in a painterly way. And, in some ways, I try for something that’s a little more abstract than just a function of color itself. It was great that Raoul wanted what he wanted from me, because I think for him it was a balancing act of Baldwin’s voice not being overpowered, more like being accompanied—a bit like jazz in a way, really.
“Regarding the portraits in the film,” Adebonojo says, “why they appear so late is just in narrative structure terms; toward the very end of the film you get to the point of individual identity. That’s where you actually hear James
Baldwin use the term, the title of the film, with just the one word being different. So it’s become personal. And, at that point, since it’s been all about him to that point, Raoul then transitions to a series of portraits that starts in the 19th century and brings us all the way into the present. And the present is what we captured at the very end there. It’s funny you should ask this, because even in Raoul’s feature films he started doing this four or five films ago. There’s always a segment of faces in his films. And he said he came to that realization because in some ways you have to personalize a film for the audience, so that even though they’re watching actors playing out these characters and these scenarios, at some point, somewhere in the storyline, when you identify a particular group of people, he puts a sequence of portraits in because he wants us to identify specifically with those people on a human level.
“Essentially,” he continues, “I was taking my cue from him and what he wanted. But, you know, there’s no greater thing to photograph than the human face. And, if you look at the hues, the range of hues of African Americans at the end of the film, you can look at somebody at some point in that series of portraits and go, ‘That’s my uncle. That’s my auntie. That’s my sister. That’s my cousin.’ It pulls you into the film in a personal kind of way. Which is Raoul—Raoul as a filmmaker always wants to make that connection. Raoul’s films are not ever about entertainment; they’re about a learning experience. And so I think at the very end he just wanted to rubber-stamp the idea that this film is as much about you as it is about anybody else in this theater or screening room or walking the streets or what have you.”
Movement, deliberate and flowing, is a critical element in the lyrical imagery Adebonojo crafted for the film.
“It was about being on the move,” he says, “and one way to represent it was as abstractly as possible so all that movement was very gentle, slow, and it was always aimed at an object more so than at a road, than at a mode of transportation. For any shot where there was movement, I literally either mounted the camera to the hood of a car or I was shooting through a sunroof. I used a Panasonic GH4 with Canon lenses for that. And that was really just a function of what I had on hand that could shoot 4K. I had used that combination as B-camera on a lot of other stuff prior. The second batch of stuff, which included the portraits, we did with the Canon C300 Mark II, and I used the Canon Cine Primes for that. Those lenses are much faster than the Canon lenses I own, because they open up to, like, 1.3 and 1.5. And the shallow depth of field was an essential part of the process because we’re transitioning from those late-19th century portraits, which tended to have shallow focus, to these contemporary portraits we were doing with a little bit of dolly movement.”
Adebonojo’s imagery for the film is unusual in both content and technique, and it gives the film a poetic quality without ever compromising the integrity of the content. It could have been done wholly differently, and usually it would have been. But Peck and Adebonojo strove for something more and achieved it.
“Listen,” Adebonojo says, “between you and me, sometimes documentaries take the safe way out, which is we just need somebody’s words to fill in the blanks so then we’ll just get an interview with them. It’s much more of a challenge to say how do we illustrate that particular thing or idea with images rather than a person or a person’s voice? There was an Oscar®-winning French documentary called To Be and to Have, probably about 15 years ago now. It was a very impressive piece of work for me because it was the story of a French teacher teaching kids at summer school, these are kids who are developmentally challenged, and the documentary was shot in real time. And there’s one interview conducted with a teacher that just gives us some essential information about him, but essentially it’s a very vérité style of filmmaking, which is something that doesn’t happen very often, so when you get a chance to do it, you welcome it because it’s challenging. You have to think in nanoseconds how to react to the situations in front of you. And this is just another dimension of the same kind of storytelling where there are no easy ways out. We need to find the right visual tone and the right visual metaphors to accompany the thoughts and words of this particular man.”
Learn more about the film at iamnotyournegrofilm.com.