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'Field Niggas' Shows What It's Like to Be Homeless and High in Harlem at Night

We spoke with Khalik Allah, the director of the new documentary, about Harlem, synthetic weed, and the predominantly black and brown subjects of his stunning debut film.

Back in August 2010, Khalik Allah, a New Yorker of Jamaican and Iranian descent, asked his father to lend him a camera so he could take some snaps of his friend GZA (or the Genius) of the Wu-Tang Clan. But when he was given a fully manual, analogue film camera, his casual interest morphed into a passion. Since then, Allah, now 30, has amassed a body of strikingly intimate photography, gleaned from prowling the streets of New York for faces to capture.

Allah's stunning debut film, Field Niggas, is the result of years of his immersion into the community of people who populate the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem. Among this predominantly black and brown demographic are many homeless folk, alcoholics, and drug addicts whose systems are riven by the powerful synthetic weed K2.

At one point in the film, you say that you smoke a lot of weed during the editing process. Does it help you get to a more creative place?
Yeah, it helps me to not take things too seriously. I was in Jamaica working on new material recently. The first few days I was under a lot of pressure. I was working with an agency for the first time after having always worked on my own. I was smoking so much weed and hash out there and it's so sunny, what I was shooting got overexposed. I didn't even balance the meter. I just shot completely blown out. The new film is about spirituality, and I had a man say a prayer for me. That's when I shifted mentally, and I got more comfortable, and I said, "This is me. I'm breaking rules now, I'm in my zone and I can continue to shoot in my own style." Marijuana definitely helps with that. Also any other psychedelics, LSD, DMT, ayahuasca: Those things I recommend to all of humanity.

Even though the film is all about faces, you get such a strong sense of place. Did you set out to make a lasting document of that area?
Before I took the film to festivals, it was available for a while for free on YouTube. Someone left a comment underneath calling it "a future artifact." I started thinking about how every person—every victim of drugs—in this neighborhood is about to be eclipsed by the big wave of gentrification that's coming. You can see the plans, especially at Lenox Avenue. They are tearing down smaller buildings, and that whole area is going to be made "safe." So yeah, it is a future artifact.

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Field Niggas opens at Independent Filmmaker Project in Brooklyn on Friday, October 16.