For his portrait collage Black Mother, American director Khalik Allah, who has family in Jamaica, captures a wide swath of the island’s residents with a unique approach: while his camera floats before his subjects, their eyes occasionally wandering to make direct contact, we hear their words (or songs or prayers) in voiceover. The effect is distancing, but also ennobling. Allah’s camera sits with them until they push past self-consciousness into confidence. It’s as if they’re soaking up the power of being seen.
While we get to know these faces, the disembodied words discuss everything from health maladies to black history in the Caribbean to the natural beauty of the island. There is a thin structure to the documentary: a pregnant woman we meet early on intermittently reappears to announce which trimester she’s in, and the film concludes with the birth of her child. In between, we meet street performers, marijuana farmers, church ladies, and prostitutes.
Allah switches among a few film formats, including scratchy celluloid and crisp digital. The latter allows for some sublime imagery—of a child resting on a woman’s shoulder beneath the glow of a pink umbrella; of a farmer walking through a field trailed by butterflies—but it’s the celluloid that’s the most thematically compelling. During much of Black Mother, the top of the next frame can be seen peeking from the bottom of the current one. The effect is a certain cinema verite bleariness, but also the suggestion that the person upon whom the camera is focused has a story that not only matters in this moment, but will go on.