At the Sundance Film Festival, Howard University graduate Bradford Young won the dramatic-feature cinematography award for his work on the films “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Mother of George” — his second time accepting the honor, having won in 2011 for the coming-of-age drama “Pariah.” The Sundance recognition reinforces what many in the industry have known for a few years now: Howard University, best known for its law and medical schools, has become an incubator for people whose work with lighting, lenses, camera movement, film stocks and visual textures has profoundly influenced contemporary cinematic grammar.
The floating-camera dolly shot and super-saturated color palette that are trademarks of Spike Lee’s work are the best known among several innovations that Howard-trained cinematographers have contributed to the films they’ve worked on. Early in his career, Lee developed these techniques in close collaboration with a Howard graduate, Ernest Dickerson.
The fact that cinematographers are image-makers both in the cinematic and sociological sense has never been lost on the teachers or students at Howard, which formed its radio, television and film department in the early 1970s and began offering an MFA in film in 1983.
It was out of that revolutionary cadre in 1975 that filmmaker Haile Gerima arrived at Howard, where he has since taught writing and directing, and guided film to becoming a force of substance and bold expression.
“The whole philosophical idea of the program is leaving their destiny to them,” Gerima says. “We try to prepare them and keep talking about the disconnects, especially in motion pictures and on top of that being African Americans, so that when they go out into the world, at least they won’t shortchange themselves in the way they should perform the tasks they happen to be in.”