Some of the most exciting documentaries are the ones where the “documentary” label doesn’t do the work justice. On the basis of his first two features, director Khalik Allah’s work exists within such energizing, unclassifiable terrain. His formally daring, hourlong 2015 breakout “Field Niggas” was a dreamlike assemblage of impoverished Harlem faces, drifting through the after hours in slo-mo set to their philosophical lamentations.
While Allah applied some of his expressionistic approach to cinematography work on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” the next year, he has continued to hone a daring, non-linear approach to transforming underrepresented stories into dazzling, experimental filmic essays. His latest feature, “Black Mother,” is a challenging and profound deep-dive into Jamaican identity that rewards repeat viewings and confirms the aesthetic of a visionary filmmaker.
As with “Field Niggas,” Allah’s approach has the immersive qualities of installation art, even as he stuffs a preponderance of evocative visuals into some semblance of narrative structure. The three trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy provide a loose framing device as Allah careens through an 87-minute collage of Jamaican faces from multiple generations, as voiceovers share tidbits of history, racial struggles, and personal philosophies, fusing them together with spiritual fervor. There’s almost no music on the soundtrack, but the meandering testimonies take on a rhythm of their own — it’s oral history as art.
As Allah flits between a range of formats, from black-and-white 16mm footage to digital video, “Black Mother” uncovers fascinating links between past and present experiences. There are unsettling moments that reveal the country’s impoverished core, including recurring interactions with street prostitutes who serve as their own pimps to a montage of scarred and amputated men and women for whom health care is a distant fantasy. At the same time, Allah looks beyond the grim challenges of the lower class to position Jamaica as a proud community still reeling from its tumultuous past.
Tidbits of backstories dovetail into diatribes. One voice recounts the emancipation of 1838, when African slavery was abolished but Jamaica’s poorer classes continued to struggle under oligarchical rule. This sets the stage for communing with the legacy of Pan-African figure Marcus Garvey, who remains controversial in much of the United States for his arguments in favor of black nationalism, but who remains a hero of Jamaican independence in his native land.
Children peer into Allah’s camera while holding Garvey’s works, as if grasping a bible. “When you know history, you know where you’re coming from,” spouts one man, paraphrasing Bob Marley. “When you know history, you know where you belong.” There is no sugarcoating of this people’s origin story. In one fragmented scene, a boy reads aloud the title of the book “The Destruction of Black Civilization” while an adult guides him through it.
Still, “Black Mother” doesn’t relish the somber past so much as it sublimates it into a broader religious tapestry. 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’ “Moonlight,” in which the lush imagery and profound asides coalesce into microcosms of marginalized experiences. They fill in the gaps.
Allah has loaded “Black Mother” with so many remarkable faces and observations that viewers can hover in its details with ghostly ubiquity, and he only breaks the spell with the recurring image of a nude woman holding a coconut to ground us in some kind of structural trajectory. It’s a nice gesture, but hardly necessary in a movie where real people tell the story in their own words and images, making the case that even as the struggle never ends, the very act of cultural survival is an ongoing triumph.
“Black Mother” premiered at the 2018 True/False Film Festival and screens this week at New Directors/New Films in New York. It is currently seeking distribution.