Monday, January 16, 2012
Bush Mama is director Haile Gerima's raw, potent depiction of poor black life in 1970s Los Angeles. Shot in grainy black-and-white, the film is a blend of near-documentary street scenes, raw amateur acting, and avant-garde techniques. The loose narrative focuses on Dorothy (Barbarao), a jobless woman who subsists on welfare to raise her daughter after her husband T.C. (Johnny Weathers) is sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. With nothing to do and no hope of finding a job — she waits in the unemployment office for hours only to be told there's nothing for her — she simply wanders the neighborhood, reads letters from T.C., and talks with other neighborhood women. She's pregnant with her second child, but because she's on welfare and her husband isn't around, she's under constant pressure from government officials to have an abortion. The letters she gets from T.C. reflect his increasing radicalization and his desire to overthrow a system that seems stacked against blacks in so many ways. She hears some of the same ideas around the neighborhood, particularly from a woman who brings her radical posters from rallies, depicting an African woman with a baby on one arm and a gun in her other hand (the "bush mama" of the film's title) and another poster showing the hole-filled body of a man who'd been shot 25 times by the police.
Dorothy doesn't really understand these radical ideas, though she feels some sympathy for them on a gut level. However, she's often swayed by the brash Molly (Cora Lee Day), who has nothing but mockery and contempt for radical ideas about "togetherness" or African identity. Over the course of the film, in between scenes of ordinary domestic life, Dorothy grapples with this debate over radicalization, vacillating between those who want to do something to fight an oppressive system and those, like Molly, who can't think beyond the day-to-day. By the end of the film, Dorothy, facing the camera in front of the poster of the African mother, has been fully awakened — through a harrowing and horrific series of events — to the necessity of systemic change. She's been radicalized, and to reflect this transition she's finally removed the bushy wig that she wore throughout the film, revealing the sparse, tightly coiled dreadlocks hanging off her scalp underneath. The symbolism is obvious: she's no longer hiding anything, she's embraced her true self, which is why Gerima shoots her in closeup with the "bush mama" poster behind her. He racks the focus, so that first Dorothy's face is in focus, and then the poster is, and then he freezes the shot, while on the soundtrack Dorothy reads a passionate letter she wrote to T.C., telling him that she's finally ready to hear and understand what he's been telling her.
Gerima relates this tale of one woman's gradual awareness of her place within a larger societal struggle with a loose, eclectic style. The film has an elliptical collage structure in which conversations, monologues addressed to the camera, and everyday moments are stitched together with connective scenes of Dorothy walking around the neighborhood or sitting at her window, lost in thought. The soundtrack is also a collage, combining snippets of dialogue and music into an associative portrait of ghetto life: bits of dialogue or radio broadcasts are looped and repeated, and the occasional song with lyrics reflects the events of the narrative. The opening of the film consists of several minutes of slice-of-life footage from around the neighborhood — the police arresting a man, people walking, a purse-snatching kid — accompanied by a dense soundtrack of street sounds, pulsing music and loops of detailed questions excerpted from welfare interviews.
Throughout the film, there are sporadic bursts of violence — men being beaten or shot down right in the streets by the police — that seem as ordinary as anything else that happens in the streets. It's just another part of the backdrop, not exactly accepted but certainly expected. Again, Gerima shows some progress in Dorothy's reactions to these events, so that by the end of the film, the sight of a black man being gunned down in the street outside her home causes her to bury her head and sob, whereas earlier she'd shown little emotional involvement at all in these routine bursts of violence. These scenes are also setting the groundwork for the absolutely devastating final act of the film, in which the violence of the streets and the police directly infiltrates Dorothy's home.
This is an intense and emotionally draining film that's all about the toll that systemic racial oppression and poverty take on those who live within this system. Some of the most poignant, poetic moments come from T.C.'s letters to Dorothy, which he reads aloud while facing the camera, speaking to the audience as though addressing Dorothy. In one of these letters, he laments the way that prison is sapping the vital, lively parts of his personality that he once treasured: "every time I crack a joke, to test if that part of me is still alive, I never can make it." Even humor is destroyed by the injustice that families like T.C. and Dorothy's must endure. It's especially cruel that T.C. is arrested, early in the film, right before a promising job interview that they'd hoped would finally change things for their family. One moment, T.C. and Dorothy are enthusiastically talking about finally having some money, maybe being able to move somewhere nicer, and then Gerima cuts to T.C. being led through the prison by a guard. The circumstances of his arrest, which are predictably unfair, aren't explained until the very end of the film, which only enhances the sense of how arbitrary it all is.
Gerima's greatest accomplishment with Bush Mama is making a deeply political, angry, even polemical film that rarely feels like merely a collection of slogans. The film's politics are rooted in the circumstances of everyday life, in the injustices that occur daily in poor black neighborhoods. The film has a real political/social message to send, contained in its dialogues and monologues about black togetherness and radicalization, but it delivers this message primarily by focusing on the tangible emotional and physical effects of racial prejudice, police violence, and systemic poverty.