‘Selma’ cinematographer Bradford Young at Penn Humanities Forum

Five films from cinematographer Bradford Young, including 'Mother of George,' will get Philly screenings.

If you’ve seen Selma, the Oscar-nominated film by Ava DuVernay, you’ve seen the exciting cinematography of Bradford Young, who will be featured as part of the Penn Humanities Forum this week in Philadelphia.

Young will present Mother of George, about the African immigrant community in New York, released in 2013. The January 21 screening will be preceded by a discussion including Young, Louis Massiah, a filmmaker and director of Scribe Video Center, and Salamishah Tillet, who teaches English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chi-ming Yang, who curated the 2014-2015 Penn Humanities Forum, will moderate.

The screening is the first of five Bradford Young films to be shown in the New Black Cinematography program, one of 20 events scheduled in this year’s Forum. The other films include Pariah, Mississippi Damned (which Young says he considers some of his favorite photography), and two earlier films by Ava DuVernay, The Door and Middle of Nowhere.

In addition to filming Selma, Young is the cinematographer for A Most Violent Year, also currently in cinemas. He has won the Award for Excellence in Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival for Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Mother of George, and Pariah.

In a 2012 New York Times article about his work, Amanda Petrusich noted, “His distinctive approach…is the product of learned restraint. He favors raw light and has a penchant for shooting into it, but said he ultimately focuses on getting out of the way."

Color in culture, economics, art, psychology, and politics

Chi-ming Yang, who teaches in the English department at Penn, gravitated to Young’s work as she put together the elements of the Forum’s theme of “color.”  According to its website, the program explores color’s “cultural, economic, and art historical dimensions, its role in human perception and psychology, its relation to literature and music, and its central place in the theory and politics of race.”

The eclectic program has included a conversation with author Zadie Smith, a discussion of butterflies by engineers and scientists, an account of indigo and Prussian blue by a chemist, and other surprises. Upcoming sessions include “Colorful Food: The Asian American Chef and Ethnic-Haute Cuisine” by a food studies scholar and “Beyond Green Environmentalism” by a cofounder of the Black Environment Network.

“My own work is on the history of race and material culture in the 18th century, especially the trade in Chinese luxury goods that was flooding European markets,” Yang told BSR. “In thinking about the Forum, I wanted to play, to push the boundaries of how we think about color.”

While there’s a range of disciplines evident in the program, the mix of social science and biology is a constant; Yang’s determination was to come at color from at least two angles. She discovered Young through seeing his 2011 film, Pariah.

“I knew I wanted to include a cinematographer, someone doing innovative work,” she said. “Bradford is so prolific, but is always working at the intersection of the community of color and a certain cinematic range in his beautiful and groundbreaking camera work. The lushness of his palette is really striking.”

The Forum, launched in 1999, is an annual fall-winter program that showcases the humanities and their essential relation to science, law, business, and society in general. The events are free and open to the public.

The Penn Humanities Forum, in collaboration with Cinema Studies and International House Philadelphia, presents New Black Cinematography: Films of Bradford Young, on Wednesday, January 21 at 6pm at International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Other Young films will screen on February 4, March 4, and March 18. The events are cosponsored by Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, BlackStar Film Festival, Reelblack Presents, and Scribe Video Center.