Interview: Khalik Allah
Black Mother, the new documentary feature from Khalik Allah, is a portrait of a country’s dichotomies. Traveling back to his mother’s Caribbean homeland of Jamaica, the New York–based filmmaker/photographer hones the alluring, hypnotic hypersensory aesthetic brought to light with his 2015 documentary Field Niggas. As Allah grapples with the immense self-inflicted task of mapping out national experience, the polyphonic matrix of visuals and soundscapes shifts between pristine black-and-white to VHS home video, Super 8, and vibrant HD, echoing the multitudes of the country it’s attempting to survey.
Whereas Field Niggas brought gonzo street journalism to an infamous corner in Harlem, Black Mother is a lyrical mediation of his rich maternal 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. Its quiet diasporic longing for answers culminates in a kinetic expression of personal identity unlike many essay films before it. “You can’t chart the soul. I always envisioned this film as a prism. Prisms depict light,” Allah wrote in an email. “Although sad or ugly at points, the film is a clear unified picture of modern-day Jamaica with an emphasis on the sacredness of the Earth and Black woman.”
For Film Comment I spoke with Allah during the True/False Film Fest shortly after the movie’s world premiere there. Black Mother screens April 4 and 7 in New Directors / New Films, and an exhibition of Allah’s photography is on display through May 12 at Gitterman Gallery.
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. There are so many levels that it can be understood by an 80-year-old or a fourth grader. Making something that’s going to transport people was definitely the intention—to make them feel like they grew with me. Although it’s an abstract documentary or experimental documentary, I don’t like the word “experimental” documentary because that implies that you don’t know what the outcome would be. I felt like I knew what the outcome was going to be. Anytime you do [something abstract], the way you find your arcs and your themes is going to be different—all of that is in this film, but it’s just presented in a different way. I would say it probably peaks with the funeral [sequence].
You’ve said you started shooting in January 2015. When did you complete it?
Just a week before True/False. It had to go through many stages in post-production. So when I had picture lock in late January, then we had a color session and and a sound session. I had been working on the sound from the get-go. 4th Disciple cleaned the sound for me. I continued to organize it and edit it even more. Then I had sessions with one of the people that worked with me on Field Niggas, Josh Furey. We worked together for a long time, raising the levels, EQ-ing things, cleaning up the audio. This whole time I was still organizing on my own, though, structuring the film. And then we did another final sound mix.
You shot on multiple platforms, and it seems to evoke multiple ways of discovering. What was your intention?
To showcase my range as a photographer. Some of the footage goes back to the Canon ES190 Hi8 camcorder my mom bought me when I was 14.
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.”
Who would you say you’re inspired by?
It’s funny because once I was making Black Mother I wasn’t watching a lot of my peers’ films. My peers on the festival circuit got some tremendous films, but a lot of my inspiration comes from people who are making things other than what I do. Even working with 4th Disciple, that’s a very inspiring brother. He’s coming from Wu-Tang as a producer, working with Killarmy and a group called Sunz of Man, so I’m definitely inspired by him. But throughout the process of making Black Mother, I watched every Kurosawa flick. I’ve seen a lot of them before, but I just got everything from the Kurosawa collection and went through it all. This is a documentary that I made, and Kurosawa’s films are more old-school and narrative, but he was original with what he did. And that’s what respect, that’s what I’m inspired by.
So you want to go back to the OG?
Yeah, the OG. Cop Kurosawa.
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.
Those are both very rich cultures.
True. And I need to get into Iranian cinema. You can put me on. I need to do more research. In Black Mother’s case I was more oriented towards my Jamaican family because most of them were in New York, and we just always went back to the island all my life. But after Field Niggas came out and more opportunities opened up for me to create another project and a lot of funders, specifically Cinereach, were interested in me and what I was going to do next, I just took that opportunity to make something that was really close to me. Because I did do some commercial projects briefly and didn’t really like it so much. Fab 5 Freddy was also a friend of mine and he encouraged me and he said, “With your unique style with what you did in Field Niggas, you should do two more films in that same style to make a trilogy.”
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. It was mad funny working with 4th Disciple and Josh Furey on this project, because they were working deep with the audio. So they had to hear everything over and over and over. They would try to repeat something and be completely off. Like, “Nah, that’s not what the person’s saying.” But it would be funny.
It reminded me a lot of my upbringing in Toronto—my giant half Somali, half West Indian neighborhood. It brought me back there.
You’re Somali? Awesome.
I’m from Somalia, yeah. I live in Columbus, Ohio now. This Jamaican guy came in once to my families restaurant and was speaking Patois to me, my brother, and my mom. We understood him but regular customers were like, “How are you understanding this right now?” We’re from Toronto, it’s a part of the city’s lexicon!
A lot of people actually thanked me for not having subtitles. My film is dealing with so many portraits and is so visual that I don’t want people to get distracted trying to read subtitles. I’m going to Copenhagen [for CPH:DOX], and it’s going to be subtitled there. It has to be.
I want to ask about collaboration. You were tapped to do cinematography for Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and I’m assuming that was during production of Black Mother.
What was the project like and how did one project inform the other?
I don’t feel like that informed this because I didn’t know anything about that project at all except what they asked me to do. It was very secretive just because that was Beyoncé. Everyone played their position. But I wasn’t really working with Beyoncé on up-close-and-personal type of work. I was more in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, doing my own thing.
I knew it! When I watched Black Mother, I thought, “He did the Louisiana scenes.”
I was doing something similar to what I was doing on Field Niggas—portraits. I shot mostly on Super 8 when I was doing that project but I had been working on Black Mother since 2015, shooting 16mm and Super 8. When I did the Lemonade thing, I just said “All right, I’m just going to shoot some Super 8.” That’s what I did and I gave them the film and it was interesting to see. I’m my own editor, so that was the first time I kicked somebody my footage and they chose and selected and edited my film into my project. But it was just a commercial project to me. It also made me want to just focus more on my own projects. I’ll probably end up doing some commercial shit because it’s mad good pay, but otherwise I’d rather just do my own project and deal with expressing my own creative vision.
It sounds like they tapped you to be your own independent filmmaker as part of a larger project.
Exactly. It was like I was another accent, as part of the whole thing.
There’s a pretty fantastic contingency of black photographers who are also doing video work and documenting urban life: Jamel Shabazz, Kevin Jerome Everson, Devin Allen in Baltimore, RaMell Ross, Malik Hassan Sayeed, and, of course, Kahlil Joseph. Do you feel a part of this growing lineage, and are there any artists out there that you feel you’re in community with?
Definitely. Jamel Shabazz is my brother, we talk a lot over the phone. A big encouragement and a very wise person. He went through a lot, similar to me. We both grew up in the Five-Percent Nation. But also, just because somebody is black and they’re doing something unique or depicting the black experience doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to vibe with them.
That’s why I wanted to ask because sometimes people can attach those comparisons to you.
True indeed, true indeed. But I do appreciate the voices that are telling the story. The stories, plural. There are so many stories. Black people in the past didn’t have as many opportunities to be involved in the art world the way we are now. Shit has been so bad, even still in the film industry and the art world, but I’m definitely striving my best to continue in that tradition of people like Gordon Parks, of taking it seriously and trying to help people, too. Field Niggas was all about rebellion, even stylistically. A lot of photographers, not just black photographers but photographers in general, are just shooting different things. Beautiful women, landscapes, and things like that—which is cool, but when I made Field Niggas it was like antonyms of beautiful, showing other things. Coming back with a film on Jamaica where there are beautiful landscapes and beautiful women, but I was trying to keep it one hundred and to show the underbelly of Jamaica from a non-judgmental point of view where everything is living next to the other thing—the profane next to the sacred. That’s pretty much how Jamaica is.
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.” I saw a connection with Handsworth Songs (1987), which was showing in a festival sidebar, because you guys were rewriting that history in your own way and in an avant-garde fashion. A lot of people might not give you your flowers right now but they will in the future.
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.
What are you working on next?
After Black Mother, I’m just going to chill for a little while and get deeper into my photography. I have a photography exhibition in New York. I have a dual career, really, as a photographer and as a filmmaker. Not a backup plan like one of them is going to fail, but creative backup. Inspiration backup. When I was editing Black Mother and there were roadblocks, I would just load up my camera and go to the streets and shoot for a while and it would clear my mind. Now, after creating a whole film, I’m going to revamp. I’m going to go inward, listen to my own voice. And then make another film. But also, in the case of Field Niggas, and even this, although people haven’t seen the photographs, I shoot photographs of different subjects for a long time and then those become indicators of what project I should do next. In the case of Field Niggas, I was shooting there for three years before I made the film, but the photographs and the film were pretty much aesthetically the same.
I just got back from Dubai. I might go back to the Middle East. Even start messing around with that idea of documenting Iran. But I don’t know if I’m going to do that straight away. I’m 32 now, I may wait, even do a whole series of projects and come back to that component of Black Mother later on in life. What’s next is definitely a lot of traveling and just being an ambassador for this project. It won’t be long for me, though, to get back into that creative headspace and create something new. Because that’s what I do. The theoretical stuff and talking about film, though I love that too, only lasts for so long before I have to create something new.
Rooney Elmi is founder and managing editor of SVLLY(wood), a biannual print and digital movie magazine geared toward radical cinephilia.