Home / Arts & Life / Kahlil Joseph’s New Film Is Steeped in Harlem’s History. And His Own.

Kahlil Joseph’s New Film Is Steeped in Harlem’s History. And His Own.

That was at the urging of his brother, Noah Davis, a contemporary artist who founded an influential exhibition space in Los Angeles called the Underground Museum. Mr. Joseph was a successful filmmaker at the time, directing music videos for artists like Flying Lotus, and was later nominated for an Emmy as one of the directors of Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade.”

But in 2014, Mr. Joseph had just completed a 14-minute film that he couldn’t release. It was based on work he’d done for Mr. Lamar, after the release of his album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.” Blending home video from Mr. Lamar’s family with original footage filmed in Compton, Calif., Mr. Joseph had made something new. But it was not a traditional music video, and Mr. Lamar was not interested in putting it out, Mr. Joseph, 36, recalled in a recent interview.

That’s when Mr. Joseph’s brother advised him to turn it into an installation for the Underground Museum. Projected on two screens arranged in a V shape, the film, “m.A.A.d,” was a striking success, drawing a host of new visitors to the space. “All of a sudden, I’m a fine artist,” Mr. Joseph said. “All thanks to my brother.”


Mr. Joseph’s installation at the New Museum is his first exhibition in New York.

Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Among the transfixed viewers was Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “I literally drove back to the museum and put it on the schedule,” she said.

The film’s triumphant run at the Museum of Contemporary Art was followed by more work, including “Lemonade” and “Music Is My Mistress,” a project for the fashion house Kenzo.

Then, last year, came the invitation from the New Museum: Could Mr. Joseph create a new film, a sort of New York-based companion piece to “m.A.A.d.”?

For the first time in his career, Mr. Joseph faced a blank slate. There was no song, no album, no core material to draw on. But he quickly found that “it’s impossible not to think about all your heroes and references when you write,” he said.

In addition to Mr. DeCarava, the photographer, Mr. Joseph drew on the work of Chris Marker, whose film “Sans Soleil” offers an extended meditation on memory and time. With “Fly Paper,” Mr. Joseph pays homage to a host of literary and cultural figures, splicing and mixing in references among its scenes of fictional characters. Some figures skate away, while others recur.


Roy DeCarava’s “David” (1953).

via Estate of Roy DeCarava 2017


A still from “Fly Paper.”

Courtesy of the artist

The film builds in layers, with vérité footage from the street interspersed with elegant, vividly staged scenes. A woman places a handbag on a bed; an elegant gentleman (Ben Vereen) climbs a set of stairs, then reclines, fully dressed, in a bathtub. He visits an art gallery. He dances in an empty room and with the Brooklyn-born flex dancer Storyboard P. The soundtrack leaps, too. Music collides with the sounds of the city: drums, bass, an ambulance, a train.

“I wanted people to feel like they saw a Harlem that they can’t see,” Mr. Joseph said. “You can take a tour bus around Harlem and see the exterior.”

His hunt for the heart of the neighborhood also shows the influence of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of the 2011 book “Harlem Is Nowhere” (its title is from a 1948 essay by Ralph Ellison). The neighborhood’s role as a capital of American culture, and exuberant celebration of African-American life is a voice in his work, which includes a passage read from Ms. Rhodes-Pitts’s book.

But some of the ghosts are his own. A middle-aged man in an overcoat gets into a cab. He’s on a gurney, proceeding down a hospital hall. He’s in a chair, head shaved, a surgical scar circling one side of his skull, watching ESPN.

That would be Mr. Joseph’s father, the sports and entertainment attorney Keven Davis, who lived in Harlem until his death in 2011 at 53. That shock still reverberates for Mr. Joseph. “I remember having no concept that my parents could ever pass away,” he said. “They seemed like these eternal experiences.”

The next shock came in 2015, when Noah, his brother, died at 32. “You think you have a lot of time with people, when you’re young,” Mr. Joseph said. “They’re going to live until they’re at least 70. Right?”


A still from “Fly Paper,” Kahlil Joseph’s film at the New Museum.

Courtesy of the artist

It was a struggle to edit “Fly Paper,” because of its deeply personal nature, and only late in the process did Mr. Joseph decide to include footage of his family. Searching through video he had shot in 2011 during his father’s last months, he said, “led to a wormhole, all this stuff that I totally forgot I shot, because I was in such automatic mode.”

Again, he was inspired by Mr. DeCarava’s work, noting how the photographer included portraits of his wife and daughters in his 1996 MoMA retrospective, alongside his depictions of jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Miles Davis.

“He was able to not compartmentalize,” Mr. Joseph said. “That’s why I started to include my family. That’s my big reference to Roy. That was his big genius.”

The loss of his father and brother also contributed to the erosion of Mr. Joseph’s sense of time, he said — a huge preoccupation for a filmmaker. “Our understanding of time as linear is completely false,” he said. In the film, it’s rarely clear whether everything is happening in the same period, across generations, or in a kind of eternal loop.

Visitors at the New Museum show wander in, not knowing quite what to expect. But that kind of serendipity is fine with Mr. Joseph, who compared it to his youthful experience of flipping TV channels, only to happen across a movie in progress. “The likelihood that I would finish the film was probably increased by coming in somewhere in the middle, not knowing where I am,” he said.

A sense of dislocation defines the film, which slips from one visual format to another — from 35-millimeter color film to coruscating black-and-white to bleary hand-held video — in a way that recalls the rapidly shifting frames of a dream.

In the coda, just after the final shot of Mr. Joseph’s father, there is a sequence of video clips from the 1990s, highlights from the career of the former Detroit Lions star running back Barry Sanders, who abruptly retired before the 1999 season. Mr. Joseph warmly recalled that during his father’s final months they would bond over sports, and Mr. Sanders, a particular favorite.

“I’ve always been drawn to the ballet-like nature of his specific play,” Mr. Joseph said. He also praised the athlete’s decision to step away from the sport at the peak of his powers. “It was like a Zen samurai principle thing, right?”

In the clips, which last a minute or so, the football star streaks across the field, again and again, a flash of joy that sharply contrasts with the painful hospital scenes. It may seem like a jarring shift in mood, but it is in keeping with the film’s essayistic form.

“I really love filmmaking, to be honest,” Mr. Joseph said. “More than plot.”

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