Black Mother paints a gritty yet poetic portrait of Jamaica

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      A documentary by Khalik Allah. At the Cinematheque until May 24

      Alligators, waterfalls, hookers, Sunday-school girls, toothless old men, and rastafarians—all of them and more mash into one delirious dream in filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah’s ode to Jamaica.

      Allah’s highly experimental style is impressionistic and elliptical; voices never synchronize with the heady images he edits together—many of them shot on contrasting formats, from saturated Super 8 to grainy 16mm. But together they make a viscerally poetic portrait of a country that’s full of contradictions.

      In rich, occasionally indiscernable, patois, Jamaicans tell stories here—in interviews, conversations, and songs. Men negotiate with sex workers; other people touch on the history of slavery, the hold of Christianity, the rise of Rastafari, and the connection to the land.

      We hear about hardship but we also see almost ecstatic happiness. The throughline is women, young and strutting the streets, old and weathered, naked and staring down the camera lens. One pregnant woman reappears throughout her trimesters. (Jamaica also happens to be the home country of the American director's own mother.)

      This is no travelogue, and it’s resolutely not the Jamaica you’ll see from your all-inclusive resort. Allah finds the country’s grittiest corners—girls hawking rotis on streetsides, shacks where beat-up mattresses sit on cement piles, and beggars scarred and disfigured after years on the streets. Ever the portrait photographer, he lingers on faces.

      The effect is disorienting but never less than dazzling. Allah has crafted something completely his own, allowing us to see Jamaica through his eyes, in all its raw beauty and suffering.