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Review: Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Rare is the artist whose sensitivity for both subject and form is so acute that their approach can waver and modulate as greatly as Khalik Allah's. The brilliant film photographer of such technical skill and ethnographic astuteness turned experimental filmmaker of such assured daring as to rival the great cinematic innovators in their ingenuity, Allah now sets about testing the formal methods he developed in Field Niggas, expanding and adjusting them in Black Mother, his portrait of the people of Jamaica. Ethnography with compassion, immersion without interference, and ever a spirit of creation amid all the documentation - in essence, Allah's cinema work bears the hallmarks of a new exhibition approach for his photographic tableaus, but again he proves in its boundless complexities that his (mostly) moving work is in a class of its own.

Each image bears a text and a subtext; their montage creates a context, and itself bears its own text. Each soundtrack element and their montage functions identically. The dissonant, dislocated (though not universally) confluence of image and sound creates a new text altogether both from its constituent parts and apart from them, and multiplies the meanings conveyed in their varying content sources by their volume in a fluid, interpretative manner that'd be overwhelming to behold were it not so beguiling. One concludes that Allah's awareness of the magnificent detail in this process is high, and that the hand he had in crafting this assemblage just so was most exacting, though also that no one person, no matter how artistically gifted, could deliberately imply all that could be inferred from the products of such a process. This is true of every movie - that the consumer's limitless interpretative ability is as crucial as the artist's creative ability - but Allah provides a truly spectacular array of opportunities for rich, substantial inference in Black Mother.

If this most idiosyncratic programme for filmmaking promises rewards for viewers like no other, it's not without the need for further refining. Indeed, as Allah increases the breadth of his scope, there's a sorry decline in the weight of persuasion in his material. Two different features they may be, but both Field Niggas and Black Mother employ intrinsically similar techniques - the former with more focus and thus greater import, the latter with more overall coverage and more ambition but with an inevitable deflation in its intensity, which is what the former possessed in droves. And even it underwent a slackening of pace and purpose in its closing stretches, which is yet more pronounced in this longer, more narratively restless work (if its narrative qualities are even existent). It's the empathy and the sincerity that buoy Black Mother even through choppier waters, though, and Allah's remarkable capacity to marry subject and form in the most glorious technical, artistic and emotional union. One of our finest photographers has most definitively crossed over and become one of our finest filmmakers.

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