Jamel Shabazz’s striking photographs dominate Charlie Ahearn’s docu, the director’s loose camerawork unwittingly highlighting the shutterbug’s arresting compositions. Shabazz started snapping group portraits of people in his Brooklyn neighborhood and on Gotham subways in the late ’70s, as the rise of hip-hop led urban youth to begin to represent, their clothes, stances and expressions forming a language immediately understood by peers. Their uncompromising, straight-ahead dignity, offset by the quasi-geometric formations Shabazz favored, linger long in the mind. Because Shabazz’s work belongs as much to ethnography and hip-hop culture as to art, potential venues for fest and smallscreen pickup abound.
Rappers, magazine editors and hip-hop historians like Fab 5 Freddie chime in to sing Shabazz’s praises while the photog himself modestly and succinctly fills in autobiographical blanks. But only when Shabazz wanders his old Flatbush neighborhood with early photography compilations, and people start excitedly reacting to his images, does the pic fully comes alive. A graffiti artist recognizes long-gone tags, a self-proclaimed “sneaker specialist” almost swoons over footwear styles on a two-page spread, and a startling number of dead friends and relatives are pointed at and remembered.