A single photo takes documentary filmmaker Sherman De Jesus to New York. It is the only photo he has of his grandfather, Juan de Jesus, a proud man, dressed in a white tropical suit. Important detail: Juan de Jesus is a black man. The photo was taken in Harlem by photographer James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), who has made tens of thousands of photos in his long career. His photos captured the zeitgeist, but they also played an important role in the life and self-image of black people. Because Van Der Zee portrayed them as they themselves wanted to be seen, as the people they were.
Sherman de Jesus tells the story behind this one photo of his grandfather, a story about Harlem Renaissance, the heyday of swinging jazz, literature and art, a story about how Van Der Zee's work remains a source of inspiration for many to this day.