The cinematic sensibility with which Khalik Allah announced himself to the world in 2015’s Field Niggas finds brilliant refinement in Black Mother. The former film’s hyper-specific focus on a single Manhattan intersection expands to an entire island nation, carrying the same feeling of personal closeness to its characters while also surveying all of Jamaica (apparently) in less than 80 minutes.
The island is where Allah’s mother is from, where his grandfather still lives (and is dying). The homegoing spurs not just a reconnection with the filmmaker’s roots but a freewheeling exploration of the society. Allah allows the citizens to tell them what life is like for themselves. As in Field Niggas, there is purposeful disunity between sound and image, with interview audio playing over separate though thematically related visuals. A repeated motif is water — brilliant flowing streams of it, or flames dancing over the surface of a pond with gas bubbling up. Multiple subjects praise their island’s bountiful water. They speak of its crops in life-giving terms.
But the chorus does not allow the illusion of a paradise. Other voices speak to the island’s troubled political history, how it has for hundreds of years been oppressed by the whims of the West. Spiritual matters infuse many of the interviews as well — some of them asserting the strength of their faith, others bemoaning the power organized religion holds over the populace. These and other issues — racism and colorism, economics, education, culture, women, work — dance with one another throughout. Allah favors a kinetic, side-scrolling view in many shots, and the flexibility of the subject matter dovetails with this philosophy.
The movie is structured around three “trimesters” (a conceit that’s sometimes shaky in terms of just what ideas come with each stage). Allah tracks the pregnancy of one woman as he builds his wider picture of the society into which her baby will be born. The titular mother is not necessarily the literal one. The documentary can be seen to function as a greeting to the child, a letter to be unfurled upon its arrival. “Welcome to the world. This is what every thing around you is. These are the people who comprise your family, your neighborhood, your culture. This is who you are.”
Allah shoots in multiple formats — digital, film, even videotape, and he also incorporates historical footage. Both figuratively and literally, the doc presents multiple ways of seeing. No place is one thing, and the mosaic Black Mother unveils of Jamaica is dizzying in its complexity but still feels like ground you’ve tread by its end. If there’s a unifying voice, it’s that of Allah’s grandfather, whom the doc returns to multiple times. His words of faith act as a benediction for the human journey and a reminder of that which outlasts brief lives. Even if you do not believe in the soul, the film makes it impossible to deny the soul of a country, that which births us, grooms us, and to which we add as we live and die inside it.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.