How the Documentary Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer failed to capture the photographer’s role Hip Hop’s early life
“Hip-hop is the streets. Hip-hop is a couple of elements that it comes from back in the days…It speaks to your livelihood and it’s not compromised. It’s blunt. It’s raw, straight off the street – from the beat to the voice to the words.” – Nas
Hip Hop was born in the Black community and given 10 years to live. Nearly 40 years later, hip hop is one of the biggest influencers in pop culture– from music to slang to fashion – and has been since its nascence. Jamel Shabazz is one of the few who have been following the rise of hip hop culture since then. Recently, I attended the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture’s screening of the documentary about Shabazz’s career: Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer.
Jamel Shabazz, a Brooklyn native, is a prominent photographer who captured the African-American community of New York City during the years prior to and at the start of Hip Hop. He has had several showings across the world and has released multiple books of his works, including Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack.
The documentary, however, left me unimpressed with Shabazz’s work. Yes, Shabazz captured the fashions of Brooklyn in the late 70s and the early 80s that became the iconic looks of Hip Hop, but the documentary’s attempt to elevate Shabazz’s role during this time period was unconvincing. While Hip Hop itself affected the world, the way the documentary chronicles Shabazz’s photos makes it seem as if they only impacted the local community. Much of the film was spent in Brooklyn where Shabazz’s work was being praised by those within the community, with these community members going through the photos identifying them and where those people were at the moment. It felt like watching someone go through their high school yearbook: the pictures are nice, but you don’t know anyone so you really can’t connect with the photos in the same way.
The documentary failed to provide a cohesive timeline and clarify its relationship to the height of Shabazz’s career. The film quality seemed like it was from the 90s, but then there was a reference to the election of President Obama. It was hard to keep track of what was happening when and what time periods were being referenced.
Additionally, the documentary dragged on. After 20 minutes, I checked my watch, assuming we had nearly completed 60 of the 82 minutes of the screening, but an hour still remained. As much as I wanted to stick with the film, I caught myself nodding off. Several members of the small audience walked out before the film ended.
Overall, the documentary failed to capture the spirit of Shabazz’s work. While the photos depicted in the film were interesting and captivating, the documentary was dull. The dynamic spirit of hip hop’s early years, which were so accurately captured in Shabazz’s photos, is lost. Unfortunately for the audience and the film, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer made an artist whose work is said to have “captured cool”, seem like he was just another talented local photographer.
Diamond Pollard is a Virginia native, currently residing in Baltimore. She is primarily a fiction writer.
All photos were provided by the Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer documentary website.