The first set of images in “Black Mother,” Khalik Allah’s intensely felt act of cinematic hypnosis, is a cavalcade of monochrome, vignetted portraits: A young woman in a tight minidress dances in a market; a shirtless man wriggles on one foot, extending the other leg gymnastically high in the air; an old woman with milky eyes smiles beatifically into the camera. The film’s last image is in grainy 16mm color as a woman’s arm extends from her hospital bed to touch the bassinet in which her newborn sleeps. And in the little over an hour in between, Allah, who directed, shot, edited, and co-scored the film, avoids the literal and the linear to create a beguilingly immersive, multifaceted, vividly sensorial portrait of his mother’s homeland, Jamaica.
Allah’s last film, “Field Niggas,” explored the microcosm of one Harlem street corner to make statements about race and class that are all the more eloquent for being, amid so much talk, unspoken. Here, he has much the same stylistic approach — portraits, often in slow-motion, of people looking straight down his camera lens, their gazes sparkling with suppressed amusement or bruised with defiance, under a deliberately asynchronous soundtrack of overheard conversations, interviews, songs, and sermons — but the effect is almost the reverse. Rather than use one tiny, specific location to highlight a plethora of issues, here Allah’s broader scope sweeps myriad tiny points of illumination about colonial legacy, social malaises, and spirituality into one heady rush, creating a choral effect that singularly embodies Jamaica (and Jamaican-ness) with an evocative, almost sensual clarity that few ethnographic documentaries achieve.
Depending on one’s point of view, there is no story in “Black Mother,” or there is masses of it, each little fragment suggesting worlds outside its frame and centuries of history outside its few seconds’ duration. In either case, audiences watch unshackled to a plot, or even much of an arc, with themes blending into one another in a seamless spectrum. Instead, we’re left free to roam around inside these pen-portraits. (The film’s nominal division into three loosely-defined “trimesters” is as much obvious scaffolding as Allah supplies.)
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There are images of nature — alligators and mangroves, quiet rivers and dense forests — but it’s the people who arrest the attention of Allah’s wry camera. And there are as many women featured as there are differing representations of femaleness, from sex workers to market stall owners, giddy little girls to ancient old ladies. Yet “Black Mother” is not dealing with anything as obvious as a vision of Jamaican womanhood. Rather it seems that the title refers to Jamaica itself, Jamaica as the original creator, less a place than a person, or a state of mind. This is a Jamaica that is held in the sway of a gait or the slope of a shoulder or the swell of a belly.
These various visions occur according to Allah’s inscrutable permutation, with crisp new digital imagery, flickery black and white footage, and warm, grainy home movies yielding surprising collisions and associations with soundtrack chatter, inevitably read as commentary on the accompanying images. During one sequence, an old man, well-dressed but in bygone fashions, appears in what looks like amateur Super-8, just as the word “Grandfather” floats up from the conversation on the soundtrack, and something about the allusive, sidelong way this occurs means the label attaches itself to him in a much stickier way. He becomes not just Allah’s grandfather, if he even is, but a kind of essential grandfather ideal, every grandfather ever. This is what makes “Black Mother,” which might feel frustratingly formless to some, such an essential, sensual experience for the viewer who wants to participate in its grand project. The brutally poetic subjectivity of Allah’s approach makes it personal to him, but it also becomes intensely personal to the viewer, a self-navigated, first-person journey through a beautiful, troubled dream of Jamaica.