When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging.
Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma.
Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. Granted, he puts on display the same idyllic qualities captured in luggage company Tumi’s recent collaboration with Lenny and Zoë Kravitz: Jamaica really is a gorgeous country—bright, warm and verdant beneath the Caribbean sun. But Tumi casts Jamaica’s ghosts in stunning repose. They’re to be breathlessly ogled by people ignorant of what it is they’re actually ogling. Allah provides viewers proper context. No sooner does the film bask in Jamaica’s natural bounty than it’s whisked away to monuments like Sam Sharpe square to hear a lesson on his assassination. (Plantation owners bumped him off in 1832 to avoid having to pay their slaves in 1838, the year slaves were given full emancipation under Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act.)
Black Mother’s elliptical style is couched in a gestational structure: After the film’s opening minute, soundtracked to a vocal performance of Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” Allah immediately cuts to a naked woman, the black mother of the title, who coolly dictates in voiceover, “first trimester.” Allah returns to her repeatedly throughout, each trimester another chapter in Black Mother’s progression. She provides a bold, regal counterbalance to depictions of sex work, a dangerous profession in Jamaica as seen on camera and heard in audio interviews, where prostitutes talk frankly about their lives and the disrespect and peril they face every night. By contrast, the mother figure is filmed with humble worship. She’s revered. “The black woman is most royal,” a man proclaims from behind the lens. He calls women “the nucleus of the strength of the black man,” and orders that we give her “all the credit.”
That may be Allah’s greater purpose here. Toward the end, the mother’s baby is born into the world, squalling in protest at being so rudely displaced from the womb, by far the best accommodation any newborn can ask for. Allah intercuts her arrival with waterfalls and rivers, a source of life flowing over and through the Jamaican landscape. This child is the future of the country, heir to Jamaica’s endlessly complicated legacy of enslavement and freedom, wealth and impoverishment, grandeur and ugliness. The combined effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. As the mother births her baby, so does Allah birth new cinematic grammar.
Director: Khalik Allah
Writer: Khalik Allah
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.