'Black Mother': Film Review

A lush sensory experience full of contradictory impressions.
3/8/2019

Photographer Khalik Allah offers a dreamy portrait of Jamaica, his mother's childhood home.

Earthy and elevated, sober and stoned, Khalik Allah's Black Mother is a tone poem whose sonic elements augment a lush and varied collection of images of Jamaica, the birthplace of Allah's mother. Employing techniques he used in the more geographically focused Field Niggas (set on a single Harlem street corner), Allah estranges sound from visuals but doesn't divorce them, leaving viewers to decide exactly how the two inform each other. Sure to find admirers in its tour of art houses, the great-looking experimental film will likely earn its director DP gigs; here's hoping that work doesn't distract too much from future personal projects.

Using a pregnancy conceit that is one of the film's more questionable elements, Allah splits his time into three trimesters and a final episode for childbirth. He returns occasionally to staged portraits of a naked pregnant woman in an unfinished concrete house, inviting allegorical interpretations viewers will have to construct for themselves.

Those shots (and some images related to them) may be the only ones in which Allah has pulled a subject out of context to shoot her. Most of the film's portraits are shot in situ: on streets and in markets, in churches, on porches. Not everyone looks delighted by the camera's presence, and a couple may even resent it; the differing styles of self-presentation help keep this from ever resembling a tourist-board promo film or generic travelogue. Allah shoots mostly in gorgeous, grainy 16mm, whose frame edges and sprocket holes we see here, occasionally cutting to high-def video and other formats.

Whatever format he uses, Allah avoids synchronized sound until some hinted-at themes click into place at the film's end. We can guess but not be certain whose voice goes with a given face, and in some cases we may never see the speakers: Early on, we listen to good-natured haggling between a prostitute and her customer; later, bits of history lessons sound like they're excerpts from long living-room conversations we don't see.

Conversations and monologues touch on a wide range of subjects relevant to life in Jamaica, but never in tidy ways. Discussions of land treaties, slavery and rebel leader Sam Sharpe give a flavor of longstanding resentments but not an actual history lesson; talk of imported, chemical-laden foodstuffs is mostly just a reminder of the richness of local agriculture. The movie can't entirely avoid mentions of Rastafari or weed — in interviews, Allah reports that he "shot the whole film high" — but it's intent on not playing into laid-back reggae stereotypes.

Much more often, talk of religion is talk of Christianity. Black Mother grows more focused on spirituality, health and righteousness as it goes, and its overlap with Allah's own family story becomes more overt. The director's grandfather dominates the film's third "trimester," and one wonders if the project might've originated with a desire to spend some time with him, regardless of the maternal theme Allah eventually settled on. Whatever its impetus, the film is a warm bath of sensations that suffers little for any thematic haziness.

Production company: Cinereach
Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Director/director of photography/editor: Khalik Allah
Producers: Khalik Allah, Leah Giblin
Composers: Khalik Allah, 4th Disciple, Josh Furey

77 minutes