Black Mother (Allah, 2018)

Black Mother is filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah’s benediction to his homeland of Jamaica. In his polyphonic and contrapuntal vision, it is a place of many faces and attitudes, with eyes that see the road ahead with sagacity, noses that revel in the scent of the country’s foods and recreations (marijuana included) and mouths that sing the mentos of the culture and happily chatter about the pleasures and hardships of living. Allah interviews both the old and the young, the well-off and the marginalized, never quite synchronizing their voices with his images, which oscillate between digital and Super 8 filmmaking that itself feels like he is traversing decades into the past. In the technical sense it is a travelogue that scours the Jamaican landscapes and populaces for an imagistic collectivism; in a broader sense it is a poetic anthology rhymed and ordered through cinematic rather than literary means. The overarching theme is that of maternity; the film’s sections are roughly divided by a woman’s stages of pregnancy, from the first trimester all the way to the baby’s birth. In several scenes, a naked Jamaican woman holds a coconut to her belly, staring beyond the camera as though keeping watch over her nation as a new dawn gestates within her. Each section flows freely from topic to topic, be it the history of slavery, the lives of sex workers, the business of religion or the resilience of Jamaican women in general, especially those who are proud of their bodies and identities. Allah takes every opinion his subjects express seriously, even if some directly contradict each other. He is respectful of the fact that his country is a land rich in perspective, and he makes this point clear by trying to highlight as much as he possibly can in the framework of his vision.

This method does shy away from a uniform sense of focus, and I concede that the scattershot approach he takes to explore different issues in Jamaica prevents a deeper digestion of their intricacies. I think if you set out to watch this knowing that it’s not going to be a comprehensive portrait of Jamaican life, you’ll be able to appreciate the more visceral artistry that Allah employs. It’s not a film that begs to be intellectually dismantled as much as it asks the viewer to find truth in its sensations. On a more superficial note, there were a few times in which Allah’s pairing of sound and image was much too on-the-nose; for instance, as a minister eulogizes Allah’s late grandfather, he begins to compare the dead man’s footstep to that of a stallion, and Allah cuts first to footage of his grandfather’s shoes, and then to footage of a man riding a horse. The film is mostly so assured and lyrical that these brief unsubtle moments stick out rather glaringly and made me wish Allah had found other ways to express the sentiment rather than just literalizing the metaphor. This is a matter of taste, though. I can see others finding such creative decisions moving.

The whole is moving, without a doubt. The final fifteen minutes in particular are serenely stunning, as a woman’s impassioned blessing is followed by scenes of another woman experiencing the miracle of childbirth. Allah intercuts these moments with footage of smiling profiles and flowing waters, concluding his vision with an elemental beauty that is hard to put into words. It’s his love for his country drawn on the tapestry of moving images and poetic soundscapes. It has the power to hush both Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans like myself into silence, for when it comes down to it, we are all joined by the miracles of life and the vicissitudes of death. We hear a baby cry, and one hand reaches for another, drawn by our most profound human mysteries to baptize new flesh with the warmth of the mature.