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Film Review: Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer

The smiles seem to disappear from Shabazz’s subjects as the ’80s come to a deadly end

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Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer

Directed by Charlie Ahearn

Playing at the Charles Sept. 7 at 11:30 a.m., Sept. 9 at 7 a.m., and Sept. 12 at 9 p.m.

The first thing you notice in the new Charlie Ahearn documentary, Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, is the fly fashion. The second thing that creeps in is the prevalence of the boom boxes held aloft by many of the Brooklyn-based photographer’s subjects. We no longer share our music in public; rather, we walk around encased in a dome of sound thanks to earbuds. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Shabazz, author of the books Back in the Days, A Time Before Crack, and Seconds of My Life, amassed an impressive catalog of shots of fellow New Yorkers posing in gold dookie chains, Pumas, leisure suits, and cocked Kangol hats in front of burnt-out tenements and graffiti-covered subway cars.

The film begins with present-day Shabazz photographing a group of Baltimore cheerleaders in a parade in Brooklyn before it heads to back in the day, when everyone dressed up, even to go to the store, and when jeans were slung much higher. Shabazz captured this world that, though rife with poverty and crime, most young New Yorkers only dream about: low rents, no chain stores, and a budding music scene. As the hip-hop artist Fab 5 Freddy points out in the documentary, Shabazz was there to chronicle the rise of hip-hop fashion and the “posing” stances associated with rap culture.

Shabazz is the Bill Cunningham—the New York Times style photographer—of Brooklyn and Harlem, where he and his Contax film camera remain a fixture. Ahearn, director of Wild Style, the seminal film made at the birth of graffiti and hip-hop culture in New York, is the perfect person to handle this subject matter. Both he and Shabazz bleed NYC.

The documentary consists mostly of straight-up shots of Shabazz’s photos and talking heads. More intimate scenes occur in Shabazz’s barbershop, where some of his subjects reunite over the photos and reminisce about guys named Paco, Chico, and Karate Clem, who would walk around the neighborhood carrying buckets of water over his shoulder because Bruce Lee used to train that way.

Sadly, the vibrant colors and ropey gold chains and fist-sized medallions found in the street fashion of the ’70s and ’80s have given way to plain white T-shirts and baggy pants. At times the film can drag, and it takes too much time getting to the tragedies of crack and AIDS decimating the black community in cities like New York. As the ’80s come to a deadly end, the smiles seem to disappear from Shabazz’s subjects. The drug epidemic hangs over the third act of the film like a heavy, humid cloud ready to burst. The saddest aspect is that we—those who lived through that time and even those who weren’t yet born—know what’s coming.

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