Interview with Khalik Allah (“Black Mother”)

Khalik Allah

A post by Peter Jordens:

Khalik Allah’s Black Mother won the Yellow Robin Award recognizing Caribbean films from emerging filmmakers at the recent Curaçao International Film Festival Rotterdam (CIFFR, April 11-15, 2018). Khalik Allah was born in the USA (1985) from a Jamaican mother and Iranian father. Black Mother is among other things an ode to his Jamaican mother and grandfather. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Khalik Allah by Rooney Elmi for Film Comment.

Black Mother is a lyrical mediation of his [Allah’s] rich maternal [i.e. Jamaican] culture through glorious portraiture. The movie takes its structure from the three trimesters of a pregnancy: the first part assembles the outlines of the island’s colonial history; the second hints at the beauty and tribulations of womanhood; and the final features prayer and baptism as part of a pellucid ode to mortality. The film’s textured neo-spiritual attempt to explore the complex histories of the small island nation—religion, gender dynamics, music, landscapes—stamps Allah as a singular voice in contemporary documentary. […]

Black Mother has this transporting quality that had me feeling, even when I left the theater, as though I was still in your universe, this place that you cultivated. That seems to be a recurring trend in your growing body of work.

I appreciate that word “transporting” because a film should take you somewhere—it should be like traveling. “Transporting” in the sense of taking you more inward, into your own mind. This is a film that you can watch and be glued to the screen, and it’s also the kind of film where you got the freedom to drift away if you want. It encourages you to close your eyes, which is the opposite of what every filmmaker would say. They’d say, “Don’t flinch. Watch my film. Don’t even close your eyes.” But with all of the prayers in the film, that right there encourages you, because certain people really get into it. […]

What is it about alienating the imagery from the sound? This is the second time you’ve done this in long-form. What brings you to that?

To create another dimension where it becomes like a novel. When you’re reading a book, you’re depending on your mind, your imagination, to create images. So even though this is a film and you’re seeing the images and hearing the sound, it’s the break between them that causes you to invest in a similar way to reading a novel, and that type of participation is what I try to get out of my films. You can definitely understand much of it on a topical level, but when you invest in it you start to look into your own life as you’re watching it. Ultimately my films aren’t just films—they’re channels, portals. I want to have that type of impression where people watch it, and cinematically, their eye has changed. And I make films for the public, but I also make them where other filmmakers can feel permission, in a sense, to make the films that they want. Because they may say, “Oh, I have this commercial project that I have to do.” But then they might see my film and say, “Fuck that commercial project. I’m going to do something that’s personal to me.”

What was it about Jamaica that was calling you back home?

It’s a place that I was always going to since the age of three, especially during the winter in New York. I just bounced for two weeks. A lot of people don’t know I’m Jamaican. My mom’s family is Jamaican, and my dad’s family is from Iran.

There’s footage of your family from your youth, and Black Mother seems to double as this sweeping documentation of Jamaica but also this love letter to your family.

For sure. I was trying to find that balance of keeping my family involved without making it biographical. I didn’t want it to be like, “My grandfather was born on this day, in this parish…” It was all relatable to the universal sense of Jamaica. So the parts of my family that are in there are a part of the authenticity to the film. I wanted it be inside out—being born in America but being of Jamaican descent, I didn’t want to make the film as if it wasn’t told from the Jamaican perspective. That’s why what I do in my work is I always find that deep level of honesty. I come as unapologetic as possible. I’m going for the heart. In the film world we have a lot of theoretical conversations and intellectual conversations. This film has all of those pieces of that. We can break down and bring it to campuses and talk about it in all those ways, but it’s also direct to your being. But all of that, as it coalesces, people are going to take different things from it. I’m looking forward to my family seeing it. My aunts and my uncles and my mom. My mom hasn’t even seen it. I’m bringing it to New Directors. The whole family [is coming out].

Religion and history hold a special place in Black Mother but you could also say the same for language. I was wondering if it was a deliberate choice for you to omit subtitles. Because a lot of people don’t understand Patois. Was that something you thought of doing in post-production?

For True/False I didn’t feel like subtitles were needed. Although there is Patois in this film, it’s not really that thick. You know, thick Patois is a lot. That definitely would have needed to be subtitled. Jamaica’s funny because they speak multiple languages in Jamaica, even though it’s English. Black people are so creative language-wise. We’re making new words up constantly, flipping the words and doing different things to the words. So in Jamaica, you can go from one parish to the next and things are a little different. I feel like people can at least understand a majority of it [in the movie]. The parts that they misunderstand, that’s okay too. […]

Was dissecting the dichotomies of the country a deliberate directorial choice? You can see it during mentions of Jamaica’s heavenly waters and terrain, and then there will be a focus on the colonial pillage of the land and its inhabitants. Or did that all come together through profiling different people in street interviews?

I can’t say I set out to dissect. I don’t find meaning in breaking things down. I find meaning in unity and wholeness. There are a lot of contradictions in Jamaica. It’s a rich place but economically poor. My intent was to show 360 degrees and not depict Jamaica as paradise. I interviewed people from deep in the country living in peace, and people in the city going through hell. Opposites attract so the subject matter was complementary not polarizing in my eyes. The oldest Jamaican newspaper is The Gleaner. The film is like that: many stories, an obituary at the end, and something to hope for. 

Black people on the continent and across the diaspora share a history that is sullied by the prevalence of cultural imagery steeped in racism and colonialism. […]

What you touched on, as far as colonialism, Jamaica is an island that has been raped. The British raped it for so long. And slavery When you think about it, Jamaica has only been independent since the ’70s. There’s big ships that have, for years, decades, extracted bauxite out of the land and brought it to China and other places to make aluminum. It’s become a prostitute of an island, in a way—I know that sounds crazy, but the reality of it is Jamaica is a service economy. Now, that doesn’t take away from everything else that’s there though. Jamaica is a sacred land. A lot of healing needs to occur, I would say. But I depicted the film from my vantage point. It’s totally subjective. It’s called Black Mother but it’s from a son’s perspective.

There’s a very deliberate shot at the end, a scene of childbirth, that might raise some eyebrows, but it begs the question: how do you gain the trust of the folks that you’re shooting? Is it a mix of people you know and complete strangers?

Definitely. I have concrete relationships throughout Jamaica, so all of those people made their way into the film, and also complete strangers—like the woman at the end that delivers the prayer. We were driving through a place called South Lamar. Nobody was talking, and we had some music playing or whatever. I see this woman walking in white from head to toe, and I just said, “Yo, stop the car.” Boom, jumped out the car, had my Bolex with me, and less than 20 minutes later is when she delivered that prayer, which became a cornerstone in my film. That’s someone I didn’t know at all. But then there’s the woman who gave birth in the film. I have known her for a while but not too long. She’s the niece of the guy who is negotiating with the prostitutes, so she’s like family. That guy I’ve known for years—his name is Roger, he’s been driving me for years throughout the island, even before I was taking pictures out there. We just clicked up.

Would you say that makes you a journalist in a way?

Definitely, it could be. Many people have different reasons for picking up the camera. But I don’t have an outlet—it’s like I put myself on assignment.

The full interview is available at

The above photo is from Allah’s website


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