‘Black Mother’ Review: Exploring the Roots of Life Itself

‘Black Mother’ Review: Exploring the Roots of Life Itself

There’s a good deal of water imagery in “Black Mother,” the new film by Khalik Allah. A shot of a waterfall feeding a stream, verdant trees and plants crowding its banks intermittently repeats. Overhead footage shows a foamy tide coming in and going out. Water is life, and “Black Mother” announces itself as an evocation, invocation and chronicle of birth and life. “First trimester,” a female voice says, as Allah holds on a full-frame view of a naked woman, the vivid life of her skin contrasting with the gray wall behind her.

Allah’s previous film, the staggering “Field Niggas” (2015), was shot in Manhattan, homing in on bedraggled drug addicts and mentally ill people on the streets of East Harlem. “Black Mother” was shot in Jamaica (his mother’s native country, where he has spent time over the years), and in its early scenes depicts deprivation and desperation not dissimilar to what his earlier film showed in such disconcerting focus. Here, Allah’s camera is more mobile than before, following streetwalking prostitutes while we hear the sounds of male voices negotiating with them over prices for specific sexual acts.

But the camera soon widens its travels, mixing film and video formats. In transferring the 8-millimeter and 16-millimeter footage, some of which he shot as a teenager, Allah makes it appear as if these visuals are being projected slightly out of frame, with sprockets and the bottom frame line visible.

There are also snippets of family life (Allah’s own, we can infer, but the film never explicitly says as much), with a long section devoted to prayer at a memorial service. Another scene shows a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound, and in the section of the film announced as “Birth,” a childbirth is indeed seen.

In its poetic, elliptical, concise way, this film makes a grand statement: The black mother is the mother of life itself. And the gaze directed at the black faces and bodies in “Black Mother” is not a male gaze, or a documentarian’s gaze. It is a gaze of love. You’ll increasingly find this perspective in works like RaMell Ross’s “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about two young black men in Hale County, Ala. And it’s something today’s cinema could use a lot more of.

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