Screenshots (Sept/Oct 2018) | Q&A

A Q&A with Khalik Allah, director of Black Mother

  • Courtesy Khalik Allah

“My understanding of Jamaica is spiritual”

Khalik Allah, now thirty-two, shot to prominence with his first documentary, Field Niggas (2015), an immersive portrait of an intersection in Harlem in his native New York City. For Black Mother, his follow-up, Allah — also an accomplished photographer — ambitiously extended his canvas from a street corner to an entire nation, Jamaica, in a hypnotically impressionistic conjuration of his mother’s home island.

Imagining Jamaica as a nurturing matriarch, and split into “trimesters,” Black Mother interlaces audio testimonies from ordinary Jamaicans with a collage of images of the island and its people, shot in a beguiling assortment of film formats. The result is a challenging work of visionary power, a tribute to everyday resistance and survival, and a cinematic representation of Jamaica unlike any before it. In this Q&A with Jonathan Ali, Allah discusses sidestepping island clichés, and the highly personal aesthetic he brought to bear on the film.

What’s your relationship with Jamaica like?

My mother is from Jamaica and my father is from Iran, so I have both these heritages within me. But because I grew up around a lot of my Jamaican family, I always felt more connected to Jamaica. In my childhood we were going to Jamaica frequently. As I got older, I would go on my own and spend time with my grandfather, a deacon. I would sit at his feet and receive wisdom that really structured my life, so my relationship with Jamaica stems from that.

Is that what inspired your approach to making the film?

I wanted to make a film about Jamaica that wasn’t about reggae. For me, my understanding of Jamaica is spiritual. It has always been a place where I’ve been able to go and be baptised in a sense, you know? So it was extremely important that I focus on the soul of the people. 

You also avoided the clichés often associated with “Brand Jamaica.” 

Those are the things people are familiar with. They’re used to the tourist attractions. Jamaica’s a poor country, remember. It was raped by the British through colonialism. And after it was raped it became a service economy. That’s why I felt it was necessary to show the underbelly. In order to do that, I had to focus on the everyday people. When we hear about Jamaica we hear about Bob Marley and “No Problem.” But there are a lot of problems. I wanted to show the problems, but I also wanted to come with the good news. 

Why the title Black Mother?

Jamaica is the mother. It represents the earth, the food, the soil, the fruits, the vegetation, the fields, the water — all of that is symbolic of the mother. So the title truly comes from understanding that the mother is the doorway into this world, and into other worlds. 

You shot the film in different formats: Super 8-mm film, 16-mm film, and digital. Why?

Jamaica is a very small island. It’s smaller than Long Island. It’s a whole country that’s smaller than a little piece of New York, but it’s a huge country in terms of its history and its spirituality and its relationship to the rest of the world. So using these different formats and building out the film like a collage was a device I used to show how dynamic Jamaica is and how many textures there are.

Black Mother is asynchronous — the audio we hear does not match the visuals we see. This could prove a hurdle to some viewers. Does this concern you?

My films challenge people to use their minds. You may have to work a little bit. You may have to apply some of your own consciousness in order to extract the meaning. I expect my audience to do that. And it’s the type of film that’s so dense and deals with so many different topics that I tell people, “Look, man, if you want to close your eyes and stop paying attention for a couple of minutes, that’s totally fine. You don’t gotta be stuck to the screen for every detail of the film. Drift away if you want.”

Black Mother
Director: Khalik Allah
Jamaica/USA, 2018
77 minutes