Khalik Allah’s third feature-length documentary, Black Mother, goes beyond stereotypical images of Jamaica as a cruise destination and a hub for reggae, Rastafarianism, and marijuana. Defying easy categorization, the film looks at the people who call the island nation home. Seen through Allah’s eyes, the ravaged country thrives and the dignity and complexity of its people shine through. Allah makes a range of bold yet effective formal choices in his representation of Jamaica, growing in leaps and bounds as an artist.
Organized around the three trimesters of a family friend’s pregnancy and, finally, the baby’s birth, Black Mother applies maternity as a free-floating symbolic device, using it to structure footage of various subjects. Allah’s mother is Jamaican, and he has traveled often to the country to visit his grandfather. Land provides food and shelter, like a mother, while the country’s past is framed as a history of the British empire raping the motherland. Jamaicans are the children of this troubling past. As for Black Mother’s organization, Rooney Elmi notes in a Film Comment interview with Allah, the first trimester dredges up Jamaica’s colonial past, the second addresses the complexity of womanhood, and the third involves prayer and pondering death. And yet this is a rough outline, for the themes drift in and out of one another.
Allah incorporates VHS, Super 8 and 16mm film, and high-definition cinematography into his handheld filmmaking, which has the quality of portraiture. He produces slow-motion images of streetwalkers wandering at night, children showing off their dance moves, vendors displaying fresh produce, congregants standing outside their revivalist church. He depicts a half-naked man balancing on one foot and a clothed man in a regal pose proclaiming his Ashanti descent. A cannabis grower extends the leaves of a plant. They all pose for Allah and look at his camera. The audio, which is asynchronous with the visuals, is composed of history lessons, rap, strong opinions, prayers, and blessings delivered in a mellifluous patois. Allah similarly separated sound and image in his last movie, Field Niggas (2015), which he uploaded to YouTube before bringing it to the prestigious True/False documentary festival and achieving critical success.
Black Mother is a larger-scale production. Field Niggas was filmed entirely at the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem at night, entering the inner and outer lives of locals on the social fringes, respectfully following prostitutes, cops, K2 addicts, drunks, and bums. In contrast, this multifaceted film ambles around Jamaica, recording the land and its people, with different cameras conveying different moods and textures. The film’s dynamic contrasts are cohered by Allah’s ease with various media and his optimistic tone. He explores shifting morals as island seniors judge the party-focused lifestyle of the young; the beauty of the natural body after a moment discussing skin bleaching; and changing conventions of courtship. The past and the present, the intertwining of personal lives and Jamaica’s politics all come into play.
Out of all the elements swimming in the film, it’s the personal that stands out. A major part of the film features footage of Grandfather in the late stages of his life. His presence marks the absence of Grandmother, who died years ago, but is seen on videotape with a young Allah on her lap. She is another mother in this film, perhaps the film’s matriarch.
Black Mother is dense and prismatic. Fragments of sound and image appear and disappear, unveiling far-from-glamorous aspects of Jamaica with beauty. Far from sappy, it evinces a spirituality in its very fiber while documenting socio-historical memory. “We are the love children,” a voice says at one point. Black Mother is a film about love made with love.