The Photographer Becomes the Subject in ‘Ricky Powell: The Individualist’

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Ricky Powell and Laurence Fishburne look at a photobook together on a park bench in New York City. (Photo by Jasper Cicero | Courtesy Tribeca Enterprises)

By Parker Dunn, Assistant Arts Editor

 

The 10-day We Are One: A Global Film Festival continues to bring lovers of film and cinema together by virtual yet victorious means. Day two of the festival landed on Saturday, May 30, and featured much less in terms of quantity compared to the jam-packed opening day, but when it comes to quality, the handful of select showings definitely showed up big time.

Amongst the small but mighty group was the Indian dramedy “Eeb Allay Ooo,” a British experimental short “Over” and the highly anticipated online premiere of director Josh Swade’s attempt at documenting the colorful and eccentric photographer Ricky Powell in the fittingly titled “Ricky Powell: The Individualist.”

Hopefully you’ve heard of the Beastie Boys, a New York hip-hop group who rose to fame in the 1980s and ‘90s signed to Def Jam Recordings. Ricky Powell on the other hand, who was an honorary member of the Beasties for a time, isn’t exactly a household name to most outside of New York City. Born and raised in and by the city that never sleeps, Powell is a photographer who has a knack for capturing truly candid photos — pictures that have a glaring liveliness and personality to them.

Powell’s prominence in the ‘80s and ‘90s is defined by a peculiarly prompt style — a style akin to the bustling streets of New York themselves. Not only embodying the essence of street culture but also carrying the streets over to the celebrity — creating an anti, edgy, raw and real depiction of famous people when stars like Cindy Crawford and Andy Warhol were subjects of his photography.

“Ricky Powell: The Individualist” feels like an extension of Powell and his work — it’s a fast-paced, full-of-energy, wild and crazy homage. It’s similar to Powell’s apartment in that it’s messy and a bit all over the place, but it works aesthetically. Featuring interviews from Laurence Fishburne, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Chuck D, LL Cool J and more, this documentary covers Powell’s involvement in New York art and culture through his many photographic endeavors.

Powell is such a character, you could honestly approach a project like this one in a number of different ways, and you’ll have audiences endlessly entertained just the same. Swade’s take on encapsulating Powell, however, ascends mere entertainment. With this documentary, Swade creates a cartoonish atmosphere and world — a humorous and absurdist look at a human being who has had very real struggles with addiction and relationships.

The latter half of the film covers some serious subject matter, but you can’t help but smile while you feel bad for Powell and his strained relationship with his mother. It’s as if we’re watching a cartoon character we love so dearly yet feel so separated from fall into a downward spiral. Hell, there’s even brief sections of the movie that are literally cartoon-animated as Powell recollects his past. So many situations shown in the documentary are so surreal they come off as comical, and Swade helps accentuate that without downplaying Powell and his struggles.

This documentary is great in many ways, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend you see the film. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing what Swade does in the future, and who or what he decides to document next.

 

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@ParkerDunn10