Khalik Allah’s Black Mother premiered at last month’s True/False Film Fest, saw its international premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, has just screened in Paris at the fortieth Cinéma du réel, and screens this week at New Directors/New Films in New York on Wednesday and Saturday before heading on to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London later this month and to the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.
“Black Mother simultaneously elucidates and scrambles notions about class, gender, spirituality, and the history of a nation,” begins Christopher Gray at Slant. “The photographer turned director’s new documentary marks a striking advance from Field Niggas, which announced him as a sui generis talent. Filmed entirely at a single Harlem intersection, that 2015 film employed a radical formal gambit, melding photographs and videos of children, K2 addicts, police officers, and other community members with an asychronized soundtrack drawn from interviews Allah recorded with his subjects before or after shooting them. Though few people have seen Field Niggas, Allah’s distinctive close-ups and stream-of-conscience editing style will feel familiar to viewers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film, on which Allah served as a director. Black Mother finds Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends.”
“Maternity is both the guiding metaphor and one of the subjects of this lyrical, occasionally bombastic documentary essay,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “Gliding from color to black and white, from digital to analog, from grim realism to spiritual ecstasy, the film offers a song of praise to the island of Jamaica and a reckoning with its painful history and hard-pressed present.”
“Allah meshes personal experience and portraiture with myth and fantasy, religion and politics, to consider the exaltation and the degradation of women in Jamaican culture—and the very idea of black motherhood,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “In the movie’s main thread, which follows one woman’s pregnancy through to the birth of her child, Allah fuses cultural and scientific observations into a warily hopeful vision of endurance and progress.”
Allah “seems to have picked up the gauntlet thrown by the contemporary cinema of Terrence Malick, which allows for a floating, ecstatic freedom of camera, of character, and of storytelling, and has re-invented it for the Vimeo era of gaspingly pretty, highly individualized art-filmmaking,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “One image, slow motion, of the director standing by a flowing river as he rewinds the film in his Bolex, the camera gliding towards these two flows, that of film and of water, epitomize the personal vision of this enthralling work.”
“Allah’s eye doesn’t shy away from the political aftermath of colonization, nor waiver at the sights and sounds of prostitution, tending to all with the same even gaze,” writes Sierra Pettengill for frieze. “Black Mother is a spiritual project, collapsing the beautiful and the profane.”
“I absolutely am not a specialist in representations of black women, colonially-inflected or otherwise,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, and at True/False, “I heard all manner of responses (not precisely correlated to gender or race) to how this works in the film; my own thought is that even while the sex workers are given significant space to speak for themselves as both individuals and representatives of a particular professional class, that’s an awful lot of work for bodies to symbolically perform. The film is no less absorbing for it, and on a visceral level it’s extremely pleasurable; I’d be curious to hear more from others on this loaded question. I mean curious as in actually curious, not begging the question for an answer I’ve already settled on.”
Tayler Montague for Reverse Shot: “Khalik is a Five Percenter, part of the Nation of Gods and Earths, a religion deeply associated with Hip Hop: Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan, to name a few. Within this religion, a major theme in the film, Black men are Gods and Black women are Earths. The images of naked Black women holding the fruit of the Earth in the film are signifiers of these beliefs, not just totems for objectification. Black Mother is not a piece of art that can be separated from the artist, as he’s a figure present in every frame and historical reference on screen. Even when Allah isn’t physically there, his spirit is felt throughout. Black Mother is the beginning of a brand of Black auteurism exhibited by Allah and his contemporaries, including but not limited to Kahlil Joseph, whose film Fly Paper (which features Allah’s voice) is very much in conversation with Black Mother.”
Update, 4/3: “The nature of New Directors/New Films ensures a selection of ambitious works that deserve attention, regardless of some inevitable failings,” writes Jason Ooi at the Film Stage. “Allah, however, entirely subverts these trappings. In just two films, he has developed and honed his incomparable style, providing the festival, and the documentary form itself, with one of the most memorable, intense experiences in recent memory.”
Update, 4/4: “Black Mother doesn’t relish the somber past so much as it sublimates it into a broader religious tapestry,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “Their Christianity, as one observer notes, came to the Jamaicans during slavery—but with time, they have transformed it into their own signposts for communal survival, with church songs and rituals transcending precise dogma. Allah’s approach sits on a striking continuum of lyrical interrogations of black identity, from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, in which the lush imagery and profound asides coalesce into microcosms of marginalized experiences.”
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