From its nonchalantly blunt title forward, “FIELD NIGGAS,” a new film shot, edited and directed by Khalik Allah, aims to smack viewers in the back of the head and snap them to attention. This hourlong feature, the filmmaker’s debut, depicts dozens of faces and bodies, black, white and brown, most of them gathered at the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, during the summer of 2014. None of these faces and bodies belong to actors, but it won’t do to call this powerful film a documentary.
Accompanying his images is an asynchronous soundtrack, in which the voices of the subjects hold forth on various topics. “I been around a lot of real people,” one says early on. The emergent theme is that in Harlem, life on the street is a form of prison or slavery. (In some cases, that prison is created by drug addiction; many shots show smoke pouring slowly out of various mouths, and much of the talk in the film is about the street drug K2, a synthetic marijuana.)
And while Mr. Allah mixes some field calls into the soundtrack to underscore this idea of bondage, his film is so beautifully constructed that nothing in it ever seems obvious. In his poetic way, and his eventual approach to the metaphysical, he makes his case. While the movie’s multiple images are never less than numinous, and its rhythms sometimes skirt the strangely seductive, this astonishing movie is the opposite of hypnotic.