Oscar-Nominated Cinematographer Bradford Young Talks Filmmaking

Bradford Young and Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma. Image courtesy of Paramount.

“You can be Black and make movies.”

This realization resounded deeply with Bradford Young when he was growing up, and consequently, it changed his life.

On April 27, Bradford Young, an Academy Award nominated cinematographer, spoke with Visual Arts professor Brian Cross as a guest lecturer at Price Center Theater. Young spoke about his journey with film, from his work as a cinematographer on the films Pariah, Selma, and A Most Violent Year, to the soon-to-be-released spin-off from the Star Wars franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Young made history when he became the first African American cinematographer to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the 2016 film Arrival.

Young recounted his roots and journey to becoming a cinematographer. He grew up on the west side of Kentucky and was raised in part by his mortician and preacher grandparents. “I’m an American kid,” he said, describing himself as a child who did things like watching films with his grandmother. Young did not seriously consider a career in film until he was an undergraduate student at Howard University. There, Young said that he really “found movies.”

When Young was 34, six years ago, he fully embraced cinematography. His work with director Dee Rees on the 2011 film Pariah, a film about an African American teenager coming out as lesbian and embracing her identity, was the first time he saw the power of story through images. Young found this experience revelatory and deemed the film incredibly influential to the development of his technique.

Young has found ways to incorporate his own unique style of cinematography throughout the films he has worked on. In Pariah, Young focused on using colors to frame characters and scenes narratively. Different colored lights represented the protagonist’s development throughout the film and the absence of light at the end showed her resolute acceptance of herself.

Professor Cross pointed out how Young expertly created intimacy with the characters in the 2013 film, Mother of George. Young explained that this choice was inspired by his experience watching Birth of a Nation in college: “I don’t know those people. I want to make movies about people I know.” The racist stereotypes cast upon African Americans in that film fueled Young in Mother of George to capture his people in the way he would want his loved ones to be filmed.

While working as the lead cinematographer in the recent films Selma and Arrival, Young spoke about moving past an internal conflict of his: imitating the movies he grew up with and filming in his own style instead. Young always felt some pressure to make films a certain way because of his exposure as a child to classic American cinema and films about the Wild West. However, he really wanted to shoot films in a way that connected with viewers and made them feel something. Young figured out how to do this in Selma, stating that it was truly the first time that he felt like a participant in the film and not an observer. He applied this active role to Arrival and made sure to get physically close with his shots, even hitting lead actress Amy Adams a few times with his matte box in the process. “You can’t create an emotional wavelength if you’re outside looking in,” he explained.

Young has now finished his work on Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is to be released on May 25. Despite growing up with the original Star Wars trilogy, he was convinced to become the cinematographer for Solo: A Star Wars Story because he thought he could shoot this film in a different style from the older films. He was allotted a good amount of creative freedom and employed it by using single source lighting and slow, procedural shots instead of the fast cuts often seen in action movies.

“Film is like my religion,” Young said, but he explained that despite his success, “I struggle with it.” Cinematography has not always been the most evident path for Young, but he has made quite the name for himself. He has often felt conflicted and lost, but has persevered and thrived, and found a style of cinematography that suits him best. Young laid out three important lessons that he learned from Selma director Ava DuVernay: One, do it your way; two, be unapologetic; and three, don’t forget where you came from.

Arun Dhingra is a contributing writer for the Arts and Culture Section of The Triton.