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Khalik Allah’s film captures rough and tumble street life in NYC

One of the people in Khalik Allah’s documentary “Field Niggas.”

A man of indeterminate age stands stock still at a precarious angle, his face frozen in a look of horror.

Other faces emerge from the night — poor people, mostly African-American. They are broken and scarred, immersed in delirium from smoking K2, a toxic ersatz marijuana. They move in slow motion, like the Walking Dead, or not at all, like paralyzed shades from Dante’s Inferno. A cacophony of voices surrounds them, not quite in synch with their world.

It is night time on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street in New York, the same bleak location that the Velvet Underground sang about in “I’m Waiting for the Man.” These are the people no one wants to see: the homeless, the addicted and deranged. No one looks at them except for wary police officers.

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And Khalik Allah, a 30-year-old street photographer. This is his first documentary, “Field Niggas.” It’s as assaultive as its title, yet seductive and beautiful. The film screens on Tuesday in the UMass Film Series at the UMass Boston Campus Center, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker.

Allah spoke to us recently by phone from his home on Long Island.

Q. Can you explain the title? It’s provocative – I don’t even know if we can put it in the newspaper.

A. It’s from a speech by Malcolm X, where he talked about the field niggas, who bore the brunt of slavery, and the house niggas, who were co-opted into the system and had it easy. Also, as a filmmaker I never felt I would be accepted into the film world. I felt, why not come in with a title like “Field Niggas,” since I was going to be blackballed anyway? But the opposite happened. It ended up getting so much attention, appearing in many film festivals. I’m getting grants and I’m working on another film. It’s been an unexpected blessing.

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Q. You also use jarring techniques like asynchronous sound and slow-motion. Why is that?

A. The form and the content had to be married to facilitate a deeper view of the issues involved. To accentuate that which we don’t see, the beauty in what most people consider ugly. The asynchronous sound created a break in the viewer’s consciousness where they could participate in the subject matter like it was a novel. It compels your participation in the environment. Some people have said the film was uncomfortable to sit through, but they felt the need to finish watching. It was uncomfortable because they were forced to empathize with these people.

Q. Before you worked solo and almost anonymously. Will success constrain your creativity?

A. Ultimately, it will be for the better because it’s forcing me to think about things I otherwise wouldn’t think about. But I decided whatever I do, I have to be satisfied with it. The creativity comes down to 3 a.m. when I’m the only one awake, and I’m at my computer editing. I try to remain a rebel. I try to remain a field nigga myself.


Interview has been edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.