Photo: Grasshopper Film
by Daniel Gorman Film Horizon Line

Black Mother | Khalik Allah

April 11, 2019

Khalik Allah’s new essayistic documentary Black Mother is a deeply moving work of humanistic empathy, intertwining the personal and the political into an aesthetic that attempts to harmonize the natural beauty and urban horrors of Jamaica. It’s a bracing corrective to those overly simplified travelogues for rich tourists, and lends a voice to the voiceless and the disenfranchised. It has a pulsating energy, images threatening to explode or evaporate right off of the screen, fragile and ephemeral, violent and tender. The soundtrack, a mixture of funky music and religious hymns and chattering dialogue, comes tantalizingly close to synching up with the image and then veers off on its own, existing asynchronously, weaving in and out of discord. It can be jarring, abstract, and impressionistic, but Allah anchors everything within a defined structure, mirroring the three trimesters of pregnancy, with a recurring motif of the camera circling a black female body. It’s about life and death and rebirth, the effects of colonialism and radical political consciousness.

Black Mother dares to constantly dance along the ledge of inscrutability, reveling in poetic mystery. In interviews, Allah has spoken about his history with Jamaica; his mother is from there and he has visited frequently since he was a child. Allah’s grandfather comes up a lot in these interviews, and that grandfather (who’s dead now) is in this film as well. The work is a collage of footage, some of which is years old, which Allah filmed without fully realizing what would ever come from it. In a sense, Black Mother is a kind of personal excavation, but it also represents a curatorial process: how do we organize our own thoughts and memories? Shot with a 16mm bolex, super 8mm, digital cameras, and even a drone, the different formats offer different textures, a kind of volatile jumble of surface qualities. Allowing the perforations of the small gauge film frames to stay in the final image is an interesting choice — raw, even sloppy, but tethering the film to a history of modernist experimental film, emphasizing the physical, tactile nature of the medium. Black Mother is very much a continuation of Allah’s process in 2014’s Field Niggas, while also representing an ambitious expansion. It is a major film from a major talent.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 3.