As another in the long line of Caribbean meditations on the legacies of slavery and colonialism, Black Mother richly represents and adds to its vast intellectual inheritance.
The Caribbean has long been at the center of anti-colonial, postcolonial and decolonial thinking and experimentation (see, among dozens of others, philosophers as diverse in medium and message as Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James and Bob Marley). Each of these related schools of thought begins with the recent global history of enormous organized violence: the seizure of land, resources and humans in non-European/Global North territories by the political and economic elites of Europe/the Global North. Specifically, these ruminations of colonialism interrogate the world with the question of how to proceed into the future when we all know that this is our past. Perhaps the Caribbean has been particularly vociferous within postcolonial thought because, added to the humiliation and brutality of European settler colonialism, is the even more repugnant foundational crime of chattel slavery involving the forced displacement of black Africans to the New World to serve as cheap labor in primary resource extraction.
Into the intellectual maelstrom encompassing post-/anti-/decolonial theorizing, pan-Africanism and African diasporic thought comes the unclassifiable film Black Mother. Directed, produced and edited by Khalik Allah – who also operated the camera – Black Mother explores the past, present and future of Jamaica in a triptych featuring pregnancy as the organizing metaphor. This is an apt analogy for a former slave colony: patient incubation punctuated by dramatic moments and culminating in a sharp and painful birth.
The first act – dubbed the “first trimester” – is concerned with the Jamaican past, particularly slavery. It is the angriest and also the strongest part of the film. Through beautiful cinematography alternating between gritty nighttime street shots of Kingston’s more hard-scrabble neighborhoods and lurid natural scenes of the island’s many resplendent rivers and forests, the narration – always poetic, ephemeral and indirect – discusses what it is like to grow up in the shadow of enslavement and imperialism. Among the topics broached are the incredible density of churches in Jamaica, broken British promises and the income gap resulting from colonial rule. In many of the scenes, Black Mother is a throwback to the Third Worldist cinema of the ‘60s – think The Hour of the Furnaces, The Battle of Algiers and Memories of Underdevelopment – but with a distinctly Afro-Caribbean bent that includes a literal works cited section featuring shots of book covers by Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, among others.
From here, Black Mother obliquely slides into the Jamaican present in the “second trimester” portion of its pregnancy metaphor. It is a country in development, both materially and spiritually. After independence, Jamaica struggled for an identity and found it in a prosperity gospel-tinged religiosity that often veered into the surreal with Rastafarianism and Pan-Africanism. Economically, Jamaica has remained never abjectly poor – only Haiti, as the slave colony that dared strike against the white masters, is required to suffer an eternity of international political punishment as its come-uppance – but never remotely wealthy, either. Black Mother really inhabits this notion of development, as it is an instance where the metaphors of the international system overlap with the pregnancy metaphor of the film. Jamaica remains, in many ways, in utero; just as no one asks a fetus what kind of a person it wants to emerge from the womb as, no one has asked Jamaicans if they want their country to struggle to fit within the standard mold of the capitalist world order. Both are pushed into their fate without any sense of their own agency.
The third act of Black Mother, climaxing in birth, is in many ways the weakest. The burning-hot anger at the world of the first trimester dissipated into the vague, lukewarm acceptance that this is just the way of things in the second trimester, which removes most of the emotional undercurrent that had been carrying the film forward. The third act sort of just sits, stagnant. Gone are the noir-ish shots of nocturnal street life and the verdant jungle scenes. This trimester, nominally about the beginning of life, instead focuses on our individual inevitable demise, spending several minutes at a funeral. Condemned at birth, with no future; so seems the fate of Jamaica(ns).
As another in the long line of Caribbean meditations on the legacies of slavery and colonialism, Black Mother richly represents and adds to its vast intellectual inheritance. The film presents dozens of indelible images and restates many of the central questions about justice and international system.