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Some of the most exciting documentaries are the ones where the “documentary” label doesn’t do the work justice. Khalik Allah’s work exists within such energizing, unclassifiable terrain. By the time his “Black Mother” surfaced at New Directors/New Films in 2018, Allah had already established his bonafides: In two shorts and a pair of concise features, he has emerged as a genuine auteur, among the best directors documenting Black faces in contemporary cinema. Nevertheless, it takes under four hours to consume almost his entire body of work, save for a new feature that premiered on the festival circuit earlier this year; with the rest of his oeuvre on the Criterion Channel, now’s the ideal time to get caught up.
As both cinematographer and director, Allah documents subjects that society renders invisible — personalities heretofore unseen in film history — by venturing inside their worlds and injecting them with deeper poetic connotations. His cinema enacts a daring, non-linear approach to transforming underrepresented stories into dazzling, experimental filmic essays. It’s one of the most distinctive bodies of work to emerge over the past decade, and still enmeshed in an exciting gestation period.
Allah’s initial spate of work followed the travails of Black faces in Harlem, weathering the storms of homelessness and addiction as if adrift in a fog of memory and survival instincts. The formally daring, hour-long 2015 breakout “Field Niggas” was a dreamlike assemblage of impoverished Harlem, drifting through the after hours in slo-mo set to philosophical lamentations. It followed two remarkable shorts, “Urban Rashomon” and “Antonyms of Beauty,” which both focus on Black homeless life in similar veins. Allah brought some aspects of his expressionistic approach to his cinematography on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” but his next project took his artistry to even more promising new heights by going international.
“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 Jamaicans 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 linger in the past so much as it sublimates that period into a broader religious tapestry. 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.
Allah has loaded “Black Mother” with so many remarkable subjects 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.
Earlier this year, Allah brought to festivals what might be his most ambitious work yet, the three-hour “IWOW: I Walk on Water,” an epic assemblage of Harlem life shot in a range of formats and backdrops. Early reports suggest it’s the kind of deep-dive experience informed by everything leading up to it. Allah’s filmmaking doesn’t make things easy on its viewers, but it’s clear that he has been building a new language for engaging with the society each time out, and he’s just getting started.
However “IWOW” gets out into the world, it will benefit from viewers who have existing relationships to Allah’s work. As film culture works to foreground a wider range of voices, Allah’s should be at the center of the conversation. Criterion has you covered: Get started.
“Black Mother” is streaming on the Criterion Channel, along with Allah’s two short films and “Field Niggas.” A version of this essay was published in 2018 as a review of “Black Mother.”