Khalik Allah’s gripping documentary Black Mother features quite the learning curve. Not only extensive in weighty themes—from Jamaica’s evolving identity to the complex sexual and spiritual politicking grounding primarily straight relations on the island — Allah’s dogged, street-level film essay is a challenge. For viewers, Allah asks us to consider the interplay between language, imagery and the disembodied voice; to remain vigilant through its looping discursive threads, woven by interviewees who may show up onscreen but aren’t ever cited. Allah’s curious choice to dissociate a subject’s voice from their body allows our eyes to feast on his breathtaking, slow-burn portraiture but opens up a Pandora's box of ethical questions that Black Mother shows little interest in broaching. What remains is a film that is provocative in scope and ambitious in form, all while lacking an awareness for how its experimental aims may end up affirming the existing marginalization of what’s supposed to be the film’s titular, representative figure.
Broken into “trimesters,” the film’s organization articulates the psychological conflict and bodily chaos of a full-term pregnancy. Allah’s directorial style melds portraiture and collage with loose conversational threads told, by some, in performative patois, influenced by the presence of the camera no less. Laid over a black frame, Black Mother’s opening dialogue between a broke man fiending for play-play and a female sex worker who won’t accept his dusty two dollars is, rather impressively, both catalytic and benign. It’s a charged bit of everyday monetary valuation that speaks to the dignity female sex workers maintain, despite assumptions to the contrary. This conversation and others like it reverberate throughout the doc, offering useful counterpoints for some of the idealistic ways men in the film will later talk about their relations with women on the island.
As much as Black Mother presents itself to be about Jamaican gender dynamics, we hardly hear from many women at all. Jaunts through the evolution of said dynamics out of Jamaica’s colonial history—from the memorialization of Sam Sharpe’s rebellion in 1832 to the Rastafarian belief in the promising abundance of Jamaican land—are almost all retold by men. Recalling history with overly masculine voices does a disservice to the diversity of format—from beautiful crushed black and whites to digital shooting—and the sprawl of entangled subjects Allah looks to unpack. This is a problem in the first and third acts wherein there seems to be a clear divide between who is an authority on which subjects. In the beginning, we hear an old, male voice extol the virtues of a black nation following a close-up on Chancellor Williams' epic tome Destruction of the Black Civilization. This acts as a jumping off point for the Rastafarian idea that the land, and what others in the film would call, “the womb,” contains everything an enlightened person could need.
Source: Khalik Allah
While the first trimester largely hones in on colonial history and the third concerns itself with an oddly-placed invocation on death, the second trimester features, perhaps, the most generative conversation on womanhood in Jamaica. And that’s in no small part due to the call-and-response structure of Allah’s audio scheme here. This chapter speaks to the kinds of self-hatred propagated by white colonial authority, beginning with the hatred of the body—from bleaching one’s skin to believing the womb is a kind of sacrifice for the collective whole. As the camera pans over and through a seemingly untouched forest, a gentle voice glides in, “The nucleus of a black man’s strength is a black woman.” Not long afterward, a woman disparages the lip-service paid to her by men who are no good. And while old men in the film ground women’s marginalization as turning away from traditional values; the youngins don’t respect elders enough to carry on their tradition of respecting women. The few ladies involved almost always refer back to the ways that men, both white and black, are deemed an authority on their bodies.
Despite its title and proposed subject matter, Black Mother’s third trimester has a lot more to do with death than birth. The funeral procession of Allah’s grandfather, William Case, marks not only the first time one of Allah’s subjects is revealed to viewers but also the first inkling of Allah’s starting point. This is the first time we get a sense of why he’s on the island in the first place. And it has very little to do with mothering and birth and more to do with the death of a patriarch.
While the back half of this section does indeed show the bloody funk of birth–guided, again, by a black male voice–the placement borders on exploitation. Throughout the film’s runtime, we repeatedly return to a portrait of a naked, pregnant black woman. Her face is stoic, and her body glistens as the camera slowly analyzes her form. She sits in an otherwise nondescript, bleak room, alone, awaiting projection. As much as the film aims to shirk linearity and easy dichotomies, the birth/death duality feels imbalanced because of the space that is given to Case’s influence versus this literal black mother. We hear his voice in an interview before he dies -- now disembodied in a non-cinematic nature -- but never from the new mother, nor from the stance of the woman who had a camera aimed at her uterus for an audience to gawk.
Black Mother is replete with mood. The dazzling, highly produced cinematography makes it feel “significant” in the ways that black cultural products like Donald Glover/Childish Gambino’s “This is America” aim to be. While the images are packed with implied meaning, the messaging is lost in overstimulation. In this feigning of well-rounded, substantive approaches to subject matters, conversations and topics overlap, creating disorientation akin to the real dizzying effects of trauma—induced by pregnancy or otherwise—but the source for such shock continues to shift. This makes for a film that feels radical in form, but less impactful once placed within the context of the colonialism it aims to critique. Of course, cinema, itself, is based in exploitative colonial acts.
As much as Black Mother proves itself a visually provocative film, it still feels like an ”ethnography”—to quote a friend, who himself is a queer Jamaican emigrant. And, indeed, there is a feeling that Allah’s “street-level” directing is much more a Western study of an othered way of being. Ethical questions remained unanswered, and we’re left to wonder about the man behind the camera rather than the subjects in front of it. While Allah does not claim to subvert the anthropological tradition, inviting us to partake in what could be considered a reapplication of colonial exploitation through visual meaning-making feels shady and harmful at worst.