In a recent interview with Mic, Ernest Dickerson, the cinematographer for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and Insecure’s director of photography, Ava Berkofsky, broke down how they worked to feature black faces on screen.
“The main thing you had to worry about is the reflectivity of African-American skin,” Dickerson told Mic’s Xavier Harding. “I always made sure that the makeup artists I worked with put a moisturizer on black skin so that we [got] some reflections in there.”
Berkofsky, who was brought on for the series’ second season to give things a more cinematic feel, revealed that she wants every scene to “look like a painting,” according to Harding. In order to do that, Berkofsky uses a special lighting technique involving a “light dab of shiny makeup” and a “white or [canvas-like] muslin” board that reflects light off the actors’ skin instead of directly lighting it. “[In sitcoms], everything is the same level of brightness,” she added. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”
In “Hella Perspective,” it isn’t necessarily (or entirely) the lighting, but the actual framing of Insecure’s leads, that helps deliver the kind of careful attention Berkofsky and Dickerson seek in their centering of black people on screen.
In this extended, 42-minute episode, the audience and characters are dragged through the same 30 days, three times over, from three different perspectives. Within that chaptered approach, the camera delivers striking low angle and high angle shots, playing with the audience’s interpretation of everything from a character’s innocence and ignorance to degrees of confidence and importance. It’s all then mashed between a series of calculated shots and cuts, including point-of-view shots and smash cuts.
The result? A not-so-subtle nod to who we’re focused on and, more importantly, how. It’s a stylistic move that helps Insecure avoid delivering the “same level of brightness” for each of its characters in their final moments of the second season. Something as complicated as pivoting between storylines across the same amount of time, or as (seemingly) simple as bringing the camera up on characters slowly before leveling out, is an intentional method of reflection that forces us to see theInsecure crew differently.
It’s there during Molly’s realization that the white male partners of the law firm she works for aren’t going to get perspective on her value, or that Issa’s lack of perspective on the high school led to her own version of inter-community discrimination. You then see it as the camera’s frame of focus flickers rapidly between the faces of Kelli, Molly and Issa while they hash out the pros and cons of working in predominantly white versus predominantly black spaces and as the camera noticeably shifts focus between Aparna and Lawrence in his car as they bicker over what kinds of relationships—and with whom—are acceptable to maintain. It is also there in the overlapping moments of interaction, altered by a character’s time with and distance to said interaction. That includes Issa’s response to a photo of Molly’s latest love interest versus Lawrence’s (jealous) interpretation of Issa’s response.
Through those multiple storylines, those shifting angles and changes in focus, we see Insecurehandle character development in a new, significantly more nuanced way. In a way we rarely have a relationship with the screen, at least on a conscious level. In a way we rarely see black people on screen.
This review first appeared in full at Paste Magazine on September 11, 2017.