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Review: All the Ways of Seeing—Khalik Allah's "Black Mother"

The second film by the New York photographer and filmmaker maps out a bracing and immense study of his mother's home country of Jamaica.
Naomi Keenan O'Shea
Black Mother
Black Mother is the latest documentary feature from Khalik Allah, the New York-born and based photographer and filmmaker who has been candidly documenting the lives of black people for over a decade. Allah came to prominence on the festival circuit with his hour-long documentary Field Niggas (2015), an observational portraiture of the notorious corner of Harlem’s 125th Street and Lexington Avenue and the marginalized people who congregate there; most of them African American and many dispossessed, homeless, and drug-addicted. He has worked on Beyoncé’s music video Lemonade, and having grown up in the Five-Percent Nation, which is headquartered in Harlem, Allah has close ties with other African American artists who have emerged from the movement, including members of Wu-Tang Clan, whom he documented in his early years as a photographer. His work blends street photography with intimate portraiture, examining the lives of individuals and communities that are more often than not left out of the picture.
In Black Mother, Allah turns his camera upon his mother’s own motherland of Jamaica to map out a bracing and immense study of the nation. The film’s tripartite structure—built around the trimesters of one woman’s pregnancy—conjures the multitudinous identities that comprise modern-day Jamaica. Loosely defined, the film’s first trimester volunteers a history lesson on Jamaica’s colonial past, parsing the cityscapes and rural communities for sex workers, street hawkers, and holy men and women. The film then moves into a stirring meditation on Jamaican womanhood, before ending with a transcendental depiction of burial and birth. Part historical reckoning and part personal testimony, Black Mother is uncompromising and all-encompassing in its scope and vision, merging the voices of an assemblage of unidentified subjects into a singular, rousing whole, with Allah’s grandfather’s voice serving as a cornerstone of the film’s narrative musings.
The film’s rapid editing draws resonant parallels between the country’s lush landscapes and its people, with images of human and environmental fecundity richly interspersed. The curvature of a coconut finds symmetry in the growing arc of a pregnant stomach, and is then echoed in the sight of an engorged growth at the nape of an elderly man’s neck. All things become connected through Allah’s cinematography and editing—life and death nestle close together. The fact that the film is structured around the trimesters of pregnancy is crucial to this: it speaks to the fundamental processes of growth; the personal and social cycles of creation; and the narratives of nurturing and death that shape the Jamaican national identity. Even the landscapes seem to perform for us—the rippling leaves of marijuana plants, the gushing waterfalls, and the undulating seas and rivers all breathe alongside their human counterparts. Their livingness is tangible, almost touchable.
Like his earlier work, Black Mother embraces intimacy and empathy in equal measure, providing visual and sonic space to people rarely represented in cinema. Depictions of old age and disability are radical and humane, with aged and disabled bodies presented uncensored and their perspectives equally explored. In one moment, Allah films a young child seated on an elderly woman’s lap: “You,” the child says to the woman, “he wants you to say something.” The camera stays with the old woman as she takes a moment before offering up the most measured of responses: “Peace, peace, peace, and may you always love each other."
Allah desynchronizes the film’s soundtrack so as people’s voices are only proximate to their image, or mismatched entirely. But this unhinged quality creates its own unique coherency. The jarring disjuncture of sight and sound takes on a melodious, transcendental quality, scooping us up in a surge of assailing visuals and rapid ruminations that invokes the plurality of experience. Frequently we hear people narrate their own histories: a young man who is missing a hand displays his injury before the camera, recounting how a “blood-brother” sliced it clean from his wrist. Prostitutes disclose the dangers of their work to Allah, with one woman describing how she works for herself and is watched over by God. As the camera pans in slow motion over a prostitute lying across a bed with a client, the woman’s voice transposes an alternative story of fortitude over the scene depicted.
Just as often we hear someone speak over an image that is not their own, particularly in the film’s middle section, which serves as a protracted homage to the Black Woman. Men’s voices play out over the portraits of homeless women, sex workers, mothers, grandmothers, and hawkers. The image of Jamaican womanhood—simultaneously contained and unfettered by male definition—seems truly boundless. What emerges is a portraiture as confounding as it is cohesive, speaking to the futility of boundary-making. Though the male voice-over showers deifying praise upon the women of the Jamaican countryside, shunning their urban counterparts who feed on Burger King, the film pulls away from these binary dichotomies, evoking a narrative of sisterhood amongst its disparate female subjects who are forever united (like all else in the film) by the Black Mother whose pregnancy gives birth to each personal history.
Allah’s filmmaking method, which includes Super 8, VHS, Bolex, black and white celluloid, and digital, physically manifests the multiple ways of seeing that the film espouses. The many histories of Jamaica, both personal and national, become embedded within the film’s textural fluctuations, so as there is never only one way of seeing and perceiving the images and narratives that unfold throughout. This finds symbolic iteration in the recurring focus on people’s eyes—piercing, unblinking, cataract-glazed, blinded—that ask us to look and always look again. Black Mother is a sprawling testimony of nation and selfhood, and the film navigates the deep interconnectedness between plural identities and the ways in which they have been shaped by colonialism, gender, and religion. What surfaces is a lexicon of a nation that is multifarious, brazen, and spirited. Black Mother offers a portrait of wholeness through fractures, finding sacredness and acceptance in the most unexpected of places.


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