Thanks to "Selma" and "A Most Violent Year," Bradford Young has become awards season's most talked about cinematographer. The 37-year-old has risen through the ranks in a short amount of time, singled out for his impressive visual eye and thoughtful commentary on race in America. HuffPost Entertainment spoke to Young about fruitful collaboration with Ava DuVernay and Hollywood's diversity problem.
"Selma" is your fourth project with Ava. Why do you have such a great relationship with her?
Ava and I are students of the same filmmakers. Haile Gerima is probably our biggest influence. We both really appreciated his contribution to independent, radical American filmmaking. He's sort of our guru in the filmmaking world. We both approached filmmaking from a similar space, which is that we consider it an art form, but also an art form that can hopefully somehow, in some way, make a contribution to the advancement of the human dilemma. That's the starting point. We really share a general concern about the art form itself. We feel like the art form can really bring a higher conversation to how we exist in the world and on the planet.
What was your goal for "Selma"?
We ultimately wanted to make a film that was not sentimental. We wanted to make a film that was involved. We didn't want to make a film that was completely observational. We wanted to make a film where people who would come and see the film later on would feel like they had a responsibility to be a participant in whatever social resistance was occurring at the time. I think we both felt like the only way we could get that across is if we put down all the tropes of conventional American biopics and really try to approach it from a personal level. Traditional biopics are generally find very little personality about the director in the voice or the grammar of the project. Ava is one of those filmmakers who believes her voice is the voice of a broader community in general. As long as she's true to her voice, she'll be able to speak to large chunks of our population, who are audiences who would come and see the film themselves. For us, it wasn't the active overall mantra of the film -- "We're not making a biopic" -- but we wanted to sort of divorce ourselves from what we see as the American filmmaking pantheon, which are films about individuals in the past that are sentimental and generic at best.
At the first New York screening, you discussed being a black cinematographer and how rare that is in the industry. How has that affected your life?
This wasn't a life at all. This was not something I imagined myself doing at 18 or 22. This wasn't even something I imagined myself doing at 27. I came to this realization that I wanted to be an image maker later in my life. The fact that I'm a black man living in America is something I've had to deal with from day one. These two things happened to collide. Divorced from the images I create as a cinematographer, I'm still dealing with the same socio-economic and cultural issues that 100 percent of all black people in America are dealing with. The other side of that is that my voice as a cinematographer is informed and shaped by my own sociology and psychology as a black man in America. Every frame, every inch of my being, every inch of how I light a scene or how I see the world is informed by that lens. I would say I've had the opportunity to work with filmmakers who have opened the door -- whether they be black, white or other -- and allowed me to access that part of my soul and put it into the images themselves.
But as many blessings and opportunities that have been given to me to be the image maker I am now, and the image maker I want to be, it still doesn't dismiss the fact that a majority of the sets I work on are not populated by folks of color. They are not diverse. "Selma," at the end of the day if you did it by numbers, the majority of the crew on the film was not African-American, was not of color. This is something I see every day and something I'm aware of. The good thing -- the beautiful thing -- is that nobody is under the illusion that I'm not aware of that. Everybody knows who I am, everybody knows my position on this thing. But listen, it's a continuous conversation we've been having for 400 years of our existence in this country, which is just allow me to be a human being, see me for who I am, let me see myself. Because if I don't see myself, how can I make a contribution to the greater society?
So much is made about diversity onscreen and behind-the-camera, but you don't often hear about the disparity on all production levels too.
Here's the deal: Most of us in the film community, across the board, work with people who we know, who we consider friends and family. If you use that as a barometer to look at the film world, it just shows you how segregated, xenophobic, sexist, racist and backwards we are as Americans in terms of how we deal with one another. I'm not throwing anybody under the bus for hiring who they hire, but if we're honest with ourselves -- for whatever it's worth for the person who could actually admit it to themselves -- we have a lot of work to do. If film sets are representations of the American public as a whole, which they're supposed to be, then film crews haven't moved out of the era that we see Martin Luther King fighting in during "Selma." Chris Rock's letter in The Hollywood Reporter is just proof of it. Here's a man who, for all intents and purposes, can try to ignore the fact that he's a black man working in a white industry. He wouldn't be able to, but he could try. But here's a guy with nothing to lose because he doesn't see it as a stain on his career to say, "Listen, I work in an industry where I don't see myself and it bothers me. No matter how much money you pay me, or how many times you pat me on the back and say I'm doing a good job, it still doesn't quench my thirst to see a greater form of representation in the filmmaking community." Steve McQueen said this a couple of years ago on a Hollywood Reporter panel with all the directors: How are you guys making films in American cities that have so much cultural diversity, but I don't see that diversity in your films? How can you make a film in New York but have only one black character, one Latino character, one Asian character? You have to look at these things from a different lens if we really want to change the landscape.
How do you think "Selma" will change things, if at all?
It's hard for me to detail or presume what that contribution will be, but I think that "Selma" will just be one of many elements that can help us change the landscape. I think we have a greater social movement ahead of us and that will have to include film -- it's going to be one of the elements that's going to help us change how we see ourselves and one another. I think this goes back to how Ava and I hooked up: Film has to be considered part of our culture. It has to be considered an art form and part of our cultural milieu. If it's not, if it's strictly about entertainment, then it's never going to make a contribution. We know how powerful film is. We look all over the world where people have tried to change their own history and film was a key component in the transformation of society. Film has to be part of that conversation. It can't always be about the box office. It also has to be about why we tell these stories. We tell these stories because we want people to remember where they came from and where they're going. How we can be better human beings? We strive to be better human beings in spite of so many temptations to be selfish. This is going to help us sit together in a room, see something that's challenging on many levels, and hopefully we can have a conversation about that.
That's a fallacy perpetrated by the industry: that these kind of films can't make a lot of money.
Money never created culture. Culture created the dollar. You can't manufacture culture with money. It's never worked. I agree. Let's just say, "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck," films that are made out of Participant [the production company behind DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere"]. These are films that have a social justice lens to them, and these aren't films lacking in box office. We want to see them. But it can't be about, "We can make films about change but we're not changing the way we make the films." The next level for us is to turn the mirror on ourselves as filmmakers and see ourselves in the stories we're trying to tell. If we don't, we're not going to change the cultural landscape. We'll just make movies and go back to our perfect vacuums.
Was there ever a moment where you realized you were really good at this?
I haven't experienced a level of enlightenment. I still feel like I have so much work to do. I have so much invested in this thing -- I really believe in the craft of cinematography. It's something I've committed my life to and I hope I'm blessed in the years to come as a practitioner of it. It's hard to say. But this goes back to the idea of representation. If I asked you or most people how many black cinematographers they could name, it would probably be one or two. One of them, who happens to be a man who I considered one of my mentors and a big brother who has inspired all of us, is Johnny Simmons. He's one of the few African-American cinematographers in the ASC. Johnny came to Washington D.C. in 1999 or 2000, he was here shooting something, and he took me around. At one point I looked across the car at him, I was like, he's a black man in an industry where he doesn't see himself, he's sober, he's friendly, he's a beautiful spirit, he's making incredible images, and he's committed his life to image making. He embodied everything I wanted to be. He gets it. He has a history of caring about community where there is a lack of representation -- and especially in a film context. That was the day where I said I'm going to go on this journey. Hopefully I can be a reflection of the dreams of Malik Sayeed, Johnny Simmons, Arthur Jafa, Ernest Dickerson -- these are the guys who have inspired me. It was literally letting my guard down and saying I'm going to go on this journey and see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.