Despite their similarities – each featuring the same culture that sprouted from the same specific era – Charlie Ahearn insists that his new movie, “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer,” is much different than his landmark film, 1983’s “Wild Style.” True, like Shabazz, he documented the then burgeoning hip hop culture; took a camera to the streets in order to capture the electricity that ran through its inhabitants, but the differences begin to arise as soon as he discusses their contrasting motives.
“’Wild Style’ was specifically made [as] a film that would play to teenagers and that would go out into a movie theater.” Ahearn said, sitting in his Tribeca home office. “And so when I made the Jamel movie, I never was concerned with it’s face.”
Opening this Friday at the BAM Cinematek and running though August 8th, he describes the new documentary, shot over the span of ten years, as a movie that is not cool. There is no animation, not much music; none of the style that is so present in his heralded film of 30 years ago, that it encompasses half of its name.
No, “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” is introverted where “Wild Style” is not. It is composed of fine brush strokes that illustrate the specific quest and life achievements of a single artist, not the broad brush strokes that paint a culture as a whole.
The documentary brings Shabazz and his historic books, “Back in the Days” and “A Time Before Crack,” back to the Brooklyn neighborhoods and people who exist within their pages. It can be difficult to separate his initial intention with the purpose that his pictures serve now, but Ahearn offers an explanation, “He didn’t become friends with them afterward because he did a picture, the picture is a document of him saying ‘I recognize you and I’m going to make something.’ ”
As a former correctional officer, Shabazz had to be genuine in his approach. “He was just there, taking pictures” one participant in the film notes. Another expands: “I can relate to them because I came from there.”
“This is not a reciprocal relationship,” Ahearn says bluntly, sporting one his many fedora hats. You might imagine the two, trailblazers in documentation of late ’70s, early ’80s New York and hip hop culture, sitting over coffee, discussing techniques, reveling in the nostalgia of the work that has made them forefathers in translating that life into a digestible medium. That’s not the case though.
“What I did with ‘Wild Style’ is well appreciated in the world, so I’m not looking for credit,” Ahearn says. “I feel like I’ve gotten plenty, and so I’m not looking to Jamel for some kind of ‘Yes, we both have done this.’ It’s true, but I’m about projecting what his life and work is about.”
Shabazz returned to his home in Flatbush in 1980 after serving a tour in Germany. He saw the homeless and drug-riddled inhabitants of his community and developed a compassion and empathy for those social conditions. That sentiment grew when, in 1983, he began work as a correctional officer, primarily at Rikers Island. He was no older than many of the inmates he worked with and this furthered his impulse to document and enrich the lives he encountered. His early work is taken in subway cars and on street corners; portraits of his neighbors and peers on familiar blocks, like the one outside of Samuel J. Tilden High School.
Brooklyn residents in the film read these portraits, recognizing locations, graffiti tags, and faces. “Forgotten post cards of our youth,” one remarks. “Want to see where I grew up? I can pick up one of these two books,” another says.
The books contain no text, no captions, no page numbers, no explanation, but those who know what they’re looking at have no need for them. “The film is about street knowledge, but you have to earn it,” Ahearn says. “It has street knowledge, let’s put it that way.”
There are the poses that Shabazz’s subject strike; arms crossed, or fingers touching their temples. There are the clothes that they wear, the styles that MCs of that time would emulate and mimic; Kangol hats, fat dookie ropes, double goose jackets, Adidas and Puma sneakers. There are the faces; the leaders of the community who provided for those in need, the lost souls who were gunned down at a far too early age and remind of a bygone era where danger was eminent and palatable. As one resident in the film notes “The pictures take on a much greater sense of importance because he’s documenting certain aspects of urban life that ultimately cease to exist.” Ahearn paraphrases KRS-One, who appears in the documentary, from the song “South Bronx,” “people wouldn’t go out to the park cause you’ll get shot.”
That danger, and the recall of those times, is indicative of a certain hurdle and quality that the film embodies. Shabazz himself is reticent, as Ahearn describes him. He would rarely appear in any of his own photos, and never provided significant biographical information. “He was sort of a mystery to people,” Ahearn said.
As a result, he respected the distance that Shabazz and other interviewees may have desired; what people will say or not say to a filmmaker pointing a camera at them. The series of interviews, conducted in barber shops and subway platforms and city parks, form a composite of who Shabazz was.
“I chose not to focus on a lot of things that I didn’t think told his story or would just confuse us as to what I thought was the story,” Ahearn said. “So it was because he’s reticent, I thought, well ok, his story could be told through other people, or we could begin to piece together maybe what his life was like.”
You see Shabazz at a Veteran’s Day parade, connecting with soldiers, seeing himself in them, and capturing both with the push of a shutter. You see him at an African-American Day parade, speaking with Free Mason’s and members of the Islamic brotherhood, and it’s a reflection of his own life, a transformation he underwent as an artist from producing portraits to truly trying to document. “The Nation inspired me to be a better photographer,” he says in the film.
And in turn, Shabazz inspired Ahearn, who came to New York in 1976, but hadn’t seen “Back in the Days” until 2002. “When I saw the cover of the first book, I immediately engaged it as a new genre of art work. That this was a new art form, a new genre, and that Jamel was an artist of high caliber.”