Beyond Mics and Men
Cinematographer Hans Charles turns his lens on the legendary hip hop dynasty of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Few cinematographers take it upon themselves to plunge into a vast array of heady topics and sometimes arduous subject matter in the span of only a few years.
Then again, few cinematographers approach the craft like Hans Charles.
"I feel like there is a clear theme in the work I've been doing in documentary. I've been lucky, I've been able to talk about prison reform, harkening back to the 80s and 90s in black America, Contact High is about the same era, Of Mics and Men is about the same era," Charles said, "So I've been able to work visually to reexamine the era that shaped me."
From working with Ava DuVernay on the Academy Award nominated documentary film 13th, to the narrative feature 1 Angry Black Man, Charles has spanned a wide breadth of both cinematic platforms and thematic content. While Charles continues to expand with projects such as Netflix's Grass is Greener, perhaps his most interesting current cinematic foray is that of Showtime's Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.
However, Charles's journey behind the camera on Of Mics and Men did not begin on set. It didn't start on the rooftops of the jagged apartments in Staten Island where Charles filmed the seasoned members of the Wu-Tang surveying the streets they came from. It started when Charles was a kid, growing up in a working-class town in Connecticut, just outside New York City.
"For me, hip hop was the true soundtrack of my upbringing. It also represents a particular era in America. I told (Ghostface Killah), 'Your music wasn't just for the guys you knew back in the hood, it was representing us who were in the suburbs,'" Charles said,
"I know kids who were listening to 36 Chambers when they were in boarding school and I have friends who were bumping in their dorm room in the ivy league because they needed that music to get through. It wasn't just the soundtrack to the streets, but it was the soundtrack to all kinds of survival."
The impact that the Wu-Tang Clan's seminal debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, had on a younger Charles was immense, and accompanied a larger fascination with hip hop and the role that music plays in culture.
"When you do a project like Of Mics and Men, you're cataloging that. You're cataloging, what music in general can do, but (also) this cultural phenomenon," Charles said, "It reflects what's happening in real time in society.
This understanding and reverence for the Wu-Tang and hip hop music itself was the seed for what would draw Charles to Of Mics and Men. Accepting the project was, as Charles characterizes it, "sort of a dream come true."
"I was a huge fan and knew a lot about who they were, the history, over the last 20 years, so for me it was a dream come true to get this opportunity to work on the project," Charles said, "It was full circle."
Capturing the essence of such a beloved musical presence is an unenviable task, and finding a place to start is daunting. Charles and director Sasha Jenkins began by dialing in on the universal aspects of the Wu-Tang's catalogue.
"I think the evolution of Wu-Tang is actually a microcosm of the evolution of hip hop in America in general. It's an evolution of the way hip hop has been embraced by the world. To me, that's really a phenomenon," Charles said,
"They're making music that is still relevant, they're making music you can still listen to that doesn't feel dated, that still feels like it belongs within the cannon. They did something that is truly timeless.
"In terms of capturing that, it was really more of listening to the direction that Sasha thought that we should go, and bringing the visual language to what he wanted to do. To me, I was sort of keenly aware that I really needed to tune in to what Sasha wanted for the project."
With a group as vast in numbers as they are in personalities, one could reason that establishing through-lines between the group's individual members would be difficult. For Hans Charles, however, this was not necessarily the case.
"It was trying to link them visually together. What is unique about Wu-Tang Clan is that it is nine individuals working as one solid unit. It is really about emphasizing the unit because those guys are going to express their individuality. I really just have to turn on the camera," Charles said, "For me it was really about unifying them visually to talk about the phenomenon of a group of so many members lasting so long."
Wu-Tang Clan's legendary status isn't just the result of classic musical works and millions in record sales. The group's story is that of its lyrical craftsmen: RZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, GZA, Raekwon, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa. Through them, Charles found a place to focus his lens.
"They were still warriors, but they were wise warriors," Charles said, "That majesty needed to be captured visually. Every frame, to me, was about capturing that majesty. Finding angles that made them look and feel as majestic as possible."
Despite the air of wisdom and confidence that many of the members of Wu-Tang exude, the show exposes the very human emotions underneath some of the group members' personal struggles. For Charles, finding the humanity in the Wu-Tang was about ensuring that the subjects had a space to express themselves.
"The environment that I created, the parts of the set that I could control made them feel like this was theirs," Charles said, "That was important to me; from my attitude, just in approaching them, to what I did lighting-wise and camera-wise.
"It was important to me to never feel like my camera was the most important thing. On a day to day basis, what was important was that when any of the Wu members or any other interviews, that they were meant to feel that that moment was important for them. Nothing was as important as that person feeling comfortable," Charles said.
This policy follows through on a philosophy that, for Charles, is at the core of his work.
"Allow them to do what they need to do first, and then you capture it. I don't believe my camera is allowed to be disruptive, my camera is supposed to be reverent. It is supposed to be as respectful, invisible, as compassionate as possible," Charles said.
"If you establish the proper environment for whatever subject you're capturing, it literally transforms the way the camera captures that person. It has to bring a certain energy to the space."
The branching momentum of Hans Charles's body of work certainly doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. With Netflix's Grass is Greener having recently dropped on Netflix and the upcoming Love Dot Com: the Social Experiment, Charles continues to delve into new territory. It is an opportunity that he utilizes, not just to capture the present, but to interpret his past as well.
"For me every time I take the camera and work on one of these projects, I'm really writing a visual essay of what it felt like to grow up as a kid of immigrants in a working class town twenty minutes outside New York City, with hip hop playing from Acura Legend cars going by with shiny rims. With drug dealers on this corner and stock brokers on the other corner," Charles said.
"I get to reexamine that visually, and I feel like the luckiest person on earth."