Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam is haunted by whiteness. The film takes place in a stately manor in present-day South Africa, where the air still hangs heavy with the oppression of apartheid. Despite the primarily Black cast, there’s always a sense that they can’t do as they please, and that whatever freedom they do have is contingent upon obedience to a rigid set of rules. Our heroine Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) lays them out to her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) at the beginning:
1. When you get in the house, you can’t run.
2. You can’t just touch the fridge. You’ve got to ask Grandma first.
3. You can’t go to the pool unaccompanied. You have to go with someone.
4. And the most important thing: Don’t ever go into Madam’s room.
“Madam” is Diane, the woman of the house, where Tsidi’s mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has worked for many years as a live-in servant. We don’t see Diane, who is sick and confined to her room, but we are frequently shown a photograph of her: a blonde white woman, smiling, her eyes piercing our souls. The film’s title is translated into English as “Good Madam,” in reference to Diane and her supposed kindness to Mavis and her family. But despite Mavis’s insistence that her madam is good, Tsidi has doubts that only grow. There’s something strange and oppressive about the house, but neither Mavis nor Winnie will acknowledge it.
The film is scored by sounds of service: running water, scrubbing, and most notably the faint sound of a bell. Whenever Mavis hears the bell, she immediately forgets herself, her daughter, and her granddaughter in service of Diane. Just as we never see the madam, we neer see her ring the bell, but that doesn’t diminish its power. Over time Tsidi comes to dread the sound, because it means Mavis will abandon her once again. Though they are all mourning Mavis’s recently deceased mother (who mostly raised Tsidi), Mavis rarely takes time to talk about her — or the rest of her family, for that matter. Every conversation is about Diane and her needs. We never hear Diane speak, but she communicates through Mavis, who is seemingly brainwashed by her service. Though an old woman, she is always on her feet, her hands in motion. Her scrubbing is compulsive, her work never-ending.
Domestic workers are among the most mistreated laborers in the world, with little thought given to their health and interior lives. The inherent inequality of this work is further underlined by the racial demographics of who employs whom. Bass acknowledged this in the video introduction to the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, in which she discussed her intent while in the servant quarters of her childhood house. She explained that the film is her effort to reckon with her own role in the subjugation of Black people in her home country. This is the fourth feature from Bass, a white director who often works with Black collaborators. Two of her previous films, High Fantasy and Flatland, similarly explore race relations in South Africa through genre conventions (body-swap fantasy in the former, the Western in the latter). All focus on the ways apartheid continues to affect the lives of Black people, who are often at the mercy of a white populace either unaware or unbothered by their privilege. Good Madam is a reckoning both for Bass and for all the clueless white children who never thought about the Black women who served them at the expense of their own lives.
Good Madam will be playing as part of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, running October 14-21 at Nitehawk Cinema (136 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn). Earwig, which we recently reviewed, will also be playing at the festival.