Khalik Allah’s documentary Black Mother was one of the most astonishing films I saw last year, back during its festival run. I’m not sure whether to call it a lyrical ethnography or an immersive personal essay film. All I know is it casts a spell from the start, and is impossible to forget afterward.
Allah grew up traveling to visit family in Jamaica, some of whom appear in the film — most prominently his grandfather, who appears in voiceover and narration. There’s no “story” to Black Mother; instead, it’s a meditation on birth and death, life and gestation, structured like a pregnancy, with “chapters” for each trimester and for birth. The film is almost wholly non-diegetic, meaning the sound and the images of Jamaica’s people and landscapes are layered on top of one another, rather than synced up. The result is dreamlike, even as it carries a critique of Jamaica’s colonialist history and a vision of its beauty.
Allah’s first film, Field Niggas, a vision of Harlem’s streets, sent shock waves through the documentary community when he dropped it without warning on YouTube in 2015, and it announced the arrival of a profound new filmmaking talent. Allah has worked as a photographer and a cinematographer (including on Beyoncé’s 2016 “visual album” for Lemonade). He’s been dubbed a “visionary” and, since the film premiered at the True/False Film Festival in 2018, has been all over the world, showing the film to audiences from Europe to the Caribbean.
I spoke with Allah by phone shortly after the film started its theatrical run at the Metrograph theater on New York’s Lower East Side. He’d just gotten off a plane from Sweden, where he’d shown the film to an audience there. We talked about the film’s spirituality, what he hoped to communicate, and how he gets inspired. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Black Mother is a very spiritual film, isn’t it?
Definitely. This film is all about my impressions of Jamaica. My mother’s from Jamaica, and I’ve been going there my whole life. A lot of the times I would go to visit, it was to stay with my grandfather. I thought I was going to just go swim and hang out. But instead, it was like I was in a monastery or in a temple when I went to his house. He would be praying over me, giving me all this wisdom, and I would be sitting at his feet just soaking it up.
Because of that, my impression of Jamaica was as a more spiritual place. It wasn’t necessarily this paradise in the Caribbean. It was like a place where I would get a sense of renewal.
So when I went to make the film, I really wanted it to encapsulate that feeling and that impression from my childhood.
I just got back from Sweden, where I was joking with the people. They told me that they don’t really believe in God there; they’re more atheists. I was like, “Well, this film was a form of baptism, so everybody here just got baptized, even if you didn’t want it.”
And the imagery of birth has often been tied up with baptism or spiritual rebirth, right?
For sure. For sure.
You also raise the role of religion in the colonization of Jamaica, which could be destructive. How much of that was known to you when you were going in making the film, and how much did you learn along the way?
I was pretty aware of it, because I had been studying Jamaican history and the history of slavery, and especially how religion is used to make people docile. Certain Bible passages, like, “Servant, obey thy master” — different things like that were given to slaves to keep them in a docile position.
But my idea was that the people had a natural spiritual capacity, a natural predilection to spirituality, regardless of the religion. If they were given Islam, instead of saying “praise Jesus,” they may have been saying “praise Allah.” Or in a Judaic form, it would have been Jehovah. So the container of the religion is kind of irrelevant, in a way.
Early on in the film, there’s a man who’s discussing the churches, and he’s talking about the church as a big business. I really wanted to establish that early on in the film. Then later on, there’s a woman who delivers a prayer, like a seven-minute prayer; before she does, she’s telling me that she’s no longer in the church. She doesn’t go to church anymore. That was a way to juxtapose a person’s natural spiritual capacity against the church itself, in a more rigid religion.
I did learn plenty of things while I was filming, of course.
I felt like I learned a lot — not that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Jamaican history, of course. But it felt surprising, since this isn’t a film where you explain history and culture. It’s more of an experience. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were making the film, or is this more personal than that for you?
I would say it was more personal. Right after Field Niggas came out in September 2014 — by which I mean, when I released it on YouTube — I went to Jamaica, in January. I started shooting [Black Mother] immediately. But then when I came back from that trip, there was a lot of interest around Field Niggas, so I kind of put Black Mother on pause. In fact, I didn’t even have that title. I didn’t know it was going to be called Black Mother or focus on women the way it does.
But I had done some commercial projects in between Field Niggas and Black Mother. That made me want to go more into myself, to make a film from the chest, a passion project, because the commercial work was a job. It wasn’t really coming from where I would like the work to always come from. Sometimes as a filmmaker, or as a cinematographer, you’re going to shoot some stuff as a job. That’s cool. But I knew that this is just the beginning of my career, so the statements that I want to make film-wise all have to be ... I’ve got to be passionate about them.
Did that commercial work include Lemonade?
Yeah. Lemonade, and I did some other little stuff, just shooting stuff and giving people footage.
Did your grandfather, whose voice appears prominently in Black Mother, pass away while you were making the film?
That’s how it seems when you watch the film, but the funeral was actually filmed in 2012. I didn’t start making the film really until 2015, but because I had been going to Jamaica throughout my life, I had accumulated a lot of footage. Around 2011, my grandfather was 96, and it was just clear to me that death is inevitable. So I said, let me go and spend a couple weeks with him and record him, without having any idea where it would end up.
When I started making the film, I began to lean on some of that material. He became a major part, and that funeral was definitely part of the arc of the whole film.
What art or other media do you interact with when you’re creating? Do you watch other films or listen to music? What inspires you?
There’s different things that I do. A lot of times, for inspiration, I just walk. I like to walk. I live on Long Island, and there are a lot of big nature preserves out here. I became a photographer in 2010, and that really informed my filmmaking style. But with this, my second film, it was harder, because people liked Field Niggas, and I felt that pressure of expectations. To clear my head, I was walking a lot in the woods, doing breathing exercises, and trying to clear my head so I could make something important to me.
Of course, I like watching a lot of films. I love the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling and all that.
My inspirations never actually look like what I make, but I definitely draw inspiration from all over. The main thing was, I think, just walking and asking myself what’s important to me. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of my audience, or overthinking my audience. I just respect my audience and expect them to come to the film with an open mind. In the case of Black Mother, the title isn’t supposed to be a definitive statement on the black woman or the black mother.
The title represents the whole island of Jamaica and the earth. The earth has been downgraded through pollution and global warming. And with Jamaica, it’s almost like it’s been raped by being colonized.
It’s become a service economy where it sells itself out. In the film, I’m showing how the black woman has been downgraded, but also we draw from her. I’m showing 360 degrees. That can be a little intense, but that’s my style. I came with a really intense, raw, unvarnished approach. That was honest to me.
Black Mother is playing in limited engagements throughout the US in the coming months. You can find the full listing on the movie’s website.