‘Bantú Mama’ and the Crossroads of Maternal Caribbean Recognition (Review)

It’s been a year since I last saw Bantú Mama, and not a day goes by that my mind doesn’t wander back. Our chance encounter took place at the 2021 virtual edition of the SXSW Film Festival. Dominican director Ivan Herrera serves as director and co-writer alongside Clarisse Albrecht. Described as a contemporary tale about a different kind of re-encounter between Africa and the Caribbean, Bantú Mama challenges our understanding of the crossroads of maternity and identity in the Greater Antilles.

Primarily set in the Dominican Republic, Bantú Mama follows an Afropean woman named Emma (Albrecht). She is detained at the Santo Domingo airport for possession of narcotics while trying to return to her life in France. Emma is able to escape after the vehicle transporting her is overturned during an accident. Three minors, their father in prison and their mother passed, take Emma in and offer her shelter in a poor district of Santo Domingo. This leaves Emma to look after them as she tries to find a way back home.

Clarisse Albrecht as Emma. (COURTESY: Bantú Mama film)

As the film starts and the camera presents Emma to us, we almost feel like passengers in her life; the first few establishing minutes of Act One lead us through different locations relevant to her. Instead of over-explaining the narrative, Herrera and Sebastian Cabrera Chelin, director of photography, allow us to feel the story. Every shot is meticulous and every emotion vibrant throughout the documentation of this clandestine life. 

Emma is always on the move. Not many words are spoken, reminding us that we are simply spectators on her journey, taken along for the ride. We can never truly get into Emma’s head nor hear what goes on in her heart. Instead, we witness the longing that exists with her presence. Bantú Mama lends itself to depicting a woman’s transformation through hardships and breakthroughs.

Arturo Pérez as $hulo. (COURTESY: Bantú Mama film)

Emma seems to live a comfortable life in France, with the exception of men trying to impose themselves on her daily routine. As she says goodbye to her pet parrot, she leaves with the promise of returning. The dramatic irony of this situation sets in with a trace of raw bitterness. There is evidently a weight on her shoulders, something inexplicable, that seems to melt away when she reaches the Dominican Republic’s Caribbean shores. They treat her like a queen – it’s expected due to the islands’ intensely neo-colonialistic, touristic nature. 

We then cut to a sharp contrast between Emma’s moments in paradise, her detainment, and the attempted incarceration, followed by her escape. She has nothing to her name, only the promise of shelter in Capotillo with $hulo (Arturo Pérez), T.I.N.A (Scarlet Reyes), and Cuki (Euris Javiel). The kids themselves are at different stages of their lives, with both T.I.N.A and $hulo suffering at the hands of parentification. They have to be the authoritative figures of the household, running a drug enterprise to provide for their family and then contributing assistance to Emma’s escape. When the kids first get a chance to speak to her in the comforts of their home, the eldest asks her if she’s Haitian, calling back to the shared history between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. It serves as an exaltation of heritage brought together by colonization and a reflection of the way our past ties together our experiences. T.I.N.A eventually strikes up a deal with Emma: she’ll help her with anything she needs if Emma promises to take Cuki with her after all this is over to give him a better life.

Euris Javiel as Cuki. (COURTESY: of Bantú Mama film)

The film’s heavy emphasis on transportation, the ability to come and go, often lends itself to a reflection of the crossing of these imaginary borders. It goes beyond the physical form of traveling, entering the narrative through dialogue and shared moments of oral history. During a tender moment with Cuki, Emma explains her origins and identity. She is both French and has Cameroonian ancestry, declaring herself Bantú. Cuki then asks her if she can be both Bantú and French at the same time. Shouldn’t one have to choose? Emma responds, “One does not exclude the other.” 

Bantú Mama opens the layers of the narrative slowly, like a blooming flower, every petal holding a new truth. It stands with the complexities of maternity and sacrifice. While the kids are trying to help Emma get back home, Emma struggles with the love that has grown between them while she provided for them as a caregiver. This is a tender, captivating film that dares to highlight the complexities of the Caribbean and serves as a reminder of why we should uplift more stories from the islands whose heavy-treaded waters hold treasures and truths.

Bantú Mama is currently on its extensive festival run. For more information on upcoming screenings, subscribe to the film’s official newsletter. 

Rating: 8/10

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