Black women reign in Black Mother, the second feature from filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah. The Jamaican-Iranian artist returned to his motherland, Jamaica, for the intimate, poetic feature. Framed in three trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy, Black Mother follows numerous island natives — everyone from Kingston prostitutes and Rastafarians to the holy women who have peculiar ties to Christianity.
Allah never intended to make this feature. He went to Jamaica to explore and capture the scenery and its people through his lens. “The story just came step by step,” he reflected on a chilly April day in New York City. “I didn’t even know it was going to be focused on black women in Jamaica originally. My sensibility as an artist, as a photographer, was just more or less like, ‘Yo, let’s just go create beautiful images. Let’s just start shootin’ stuff.’ My mother is Jamaican. She is a black mother. However, the film itself, that title represents so much more than just my mom. It’s not really about my mom although she’s in the film; it also represents a play on that term “dark matter.” As far as the universe — it’s relating the universe to the womb. I started finding my different themes such as food, herbs, the land, water, all of those things represent the Earth. The Earth is the woman.”
With no distinct narrative, Allah allows his heavy visual style and his subjects to speak for themselves. Separating hs audio from the footage, the people of Jamaica provide their testimonies in place of a soundtrack. Allah also refused to use subtitles. “I was happy to hear from the audience like, ‘Yo, I’m glad you didn’t put subtitles there,'” he recalled. “The parts that people weren’t able to get is okay too because it’s not the type of film that you gotta be stuck to every detail. The film is really intended to take you inward, this is a film that encourages you to close your eyes. You know, certain people came back to me after seeing this and were like, ‘Yo, this made me want to get in touch with my family. I don’t really speak to my Mom that much. I don’t speak to my family at all. I don’t have a good relationship with them; I want to get tighter with my family now.’ That was like the best comment that I could get.”
Allah’s journey with Black Mother began in 2015, just as his first feature Field Niggas began blowing up. The Harlem native returned to Jamaica to observe the island and examine how his relationship with his mother’s homeland had shifted and changed since his childhood and after the death of his beloved grandfather. “Some of my deepest impressions of life were in Jamaica,” Allah explained. “I’ve been going since 1988 when I was three. Just going back and forth all my life, definitely I’ve seen the good and the bad. I’ve seen the opulence, Jamaica has some amazing places, but in the film, I really wanted to show the underbelly. I didn’t want to make it seem like this paradise island where tourists go to kick back, and it’s all good. Jamaica is an island that has been raped by the British in the form of colonialism and slavery. Then it became a service economy where all the economics is based off the tourism and providing service and stuff like that. In that way, (the island) has become a prostitute in a way. That’s just my analysis of lookin’ at it through history.”
Flawlessly switching from Super 8mm to HD video — the Lemonade cinematographer was very aware of the privilege that was allotted to him in telling black women’s stories. “As far as a man depicting women the way that I did, I mean, the title was Black Mother, but it’s from a son’s perspective,” he emphasized. “It’s definitely my perspective. I didn’t feel like I had to step out of my lane at all to show what I did. It was always such a blessing to receive the sex workers’ [stories] because they would bless me just as much as the revivalist woman whose name is Angel at the end of the film who gave me that 7-minute long prayer.”
Filming an actual birth to conclude Black Mother was also an essential component of Allah’s vision. It was also the hardest aspect of the film to shoot. “Jamaican women are more conservative naturally,” he explained. “The woman giving birth. Her name is Yasheka. She was in agreement. I told her about the movie, and she was interested; she was feelin’ the idea. When I got to Jamaica, we went and had a checkup with the doctor, everything was cool, but after a couple of days, she completely flipped. She was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that no more.’ We spoke, I remember speaking to her for like five hours straight. We just got everything out in the open. She was like, ‘Look; it’s not that I don’t want to do it, but I don’t want my face in the film. You can film the baby being born and the head crowing and all of that.’ I was like, ‘Yo; I can’t have no anonymous vaginas giving birth in my movie! Women will come after me! Eventually, she agreed to it.”
Once Allah filmed the birth he knew that he needed to set aside the time to finish the project. “I just became more inward and just turned the volume down on everything else,” he recalled. “I edited the audio structure first and then came in with the video.” The resulting film is a transformative piece on struggle, triumph, and the power of black women.
Black Mother premiered at the 2018 True/False Film Festival in New York City. The film is currently seeking distribution.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.