Black Mother (2018)

Directed by Khalik Allah

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Black Mother is a textured dreamlike visual poem taking us through life and death and the streets of Jamaica.  The opening images inspired some sort of deja vu, but by the end it felt like even the simplest shots were things I had never seen before.

It’s an awe-inspiring journey, at first subtle in what I perceived to be its eventual grandiosity.  There’s no narrative to speak of and no characters with arcs we follow from beginning to end.  Instead each person represented onscreen or interviewed just off camera makes up a small component of a much larger tapestry.

It’s a beautiful film, both in terms of visual aesthetics and the use of sound and music.  It’s a series of well-staged and captured moving portraits with beautiful people all marked by some combination of time, tragedy and self-expression.  There are wrinkles, tattoos, scars, dyed skin, pregnant bellies, bulging benign tumors, dreadlocks, hunched backs, stretch marks and coiled veins.  These human landscapes are often juxtaposed with natural images of running water, crashing waves and setting suns.

The parallel here is between Mother Earth and motherhood.  The loose framework of the documentary starts with the naked body of a pregnant woman in her first trimester.  Every so often we will return to her as her bellies gets bigger until she finally gives birth.

This moment acts as well as a sort of rebirth for the narrative, having followed in the story the funeral service for an old man we become briefly acquainted with, though we learn the most about him after his passing.

He’s an elderly man who is asked his thoughts on death, and his response isn’t purposefully poignant or grand but probably a little bit so because of the honesty and simplicity of his response: we all face it some day.  We then listen in on his memorial service while we watch him be laid to rest, cut together with footage of him sitting on his porch, looking at the camera.

I found both of these sequences, death and birth, to be a bit exhausting, in a good way.  There was something discomforting about the way they spoke of the man, at least in combination with footage of him tangibly there, alive.  The birth scene is beautiful and challenging in its own way, simply because of the exhaustive, unique experience (I imagine!) of giving birth.

The death scene uses one of the strongest recurring images of the film, that of a person looking straight into the camera.  These form compelling portraits of the figures onscreen, but this being a moving image, and not a snapshot, there is something almost unsettling about staring into someone’s eyes while they stare right back.

There’s certainly an undeniable power to such images, particularly as they are imbued with an implied sense of pride.  After all to look back at the camera you have to acknowledge its presence, and to let yourself be photographed with such intimacy, sometimes with not even clothing to hide behind, is a vulnerable enterprise.  Though we are the ones on the other side of the screen doing the looking, it feels as if it is firmly they who are in control.

The result of all this is a lush, memorable, textured portrait of a specific place but a universal bond, both to our planet and to our own origins.  Sitting on it for a short while after seeing the film, it feels like a dream I had.  The images have settled somewhere inside my brain though there seem to be large segments of the movie I can’t directly recall, if only because it’s hard to trace back a narrative when there isn’t any to speak of.

So I suppose one day I’ll walk down the street and see something that inspires another round of deja vu, without realizing it came from this movie.

Up Next: Tremors (1990), To the Wonder (2012), Road House (1989)

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