Thomas Allen Harris has created a thoroughly thought-provoking commentary on the use of ‘images’ and their power to document history. In the documentary Through A Lens Darkly, Harris speaks to an untold history of Black people in America, and in that vein to all peoples subjugated across history.
The Image is one of the most powerful creations in human history. From its earlier forms (drawings, wall paintings, art in general) to the invention of photos, the Image has the ability to document human experience and anything through its lens in the most profound manner. Harris takes this unmatched power of the Image and explores how Black history, for the most part, was distorted, manipulated, misrepresented to create the savage idea of a people, to serve the interest of their white masters.
The film goes through archival footage of images upon images of how black people were made to look like savages, subservient slaves, beastly looking beings who bore no resemblance to anything human. “It was as if they had recently emerged from a jungle’, as a historian puts it in the film. This reinforced the social idea of who they were for years on end. While the victors are known to write history to suit themselves, this ingenious manner of subverting the whole visual representation of the history of an entire people, has had unimaginable consequences.
Through interviews with artists, historians and commentators the film further talks about how even people within the Black communities began to see their own selves, framing their identities, through the images that they had access to. For them, it was all they had and all they were taught about themselves. Photos and family albums serve the purpose of documenting history and act as reference to the formation of one’s identity. Harris rightly points out how the process of deconstruction of the savage Black man, perpetuated through these images, continues to happen. The normalization of a people as educated, economically vibrant and on the path to progress was a social challenge in addition to unshackling their binds of history. The film questions how and why these painful stories were allowed to remain.
Juxtaposing this to our contemporary world and we find that we haven’t moved far from how we document or represent ourselves. While some freedoms exist in the 21st century, we are still bound and constrained by power, politics, religion and society. We still document both our past and our present through the lens that lacks authenticity and is clouded by prejudice and ignorance.
Through A Lens Darkly is a bold and authentic film that makes you think backwards and forwards at the same time, and questions how we “Image” ourselves both in the past and the future.
Through a Lens Darkly from First Run Features is available on iTunes starting February 2.