by Matt Levine
From its opening seconds on, Mother of George is hypnotic: we are immediately treated to an oblique view of a busy New York City street as a foreboding yet sultry growl is heard on the soundtrack. This world looks familiar, but it’s been transformed in a way that only the best film stylists can accomplish—the colors are richer, the sounds alien, our perspective granted uncommon intimacy thanks to a well-placed zoom lens. Mother of George doesn’t simply evoke our world; it heightens it, as volatile human emotions turn everything strange and discomfiting.
Images of Africa – Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Producers: Laura Bernieri, Isaach De Bankolé, André Des Rochers, Saerom Kim, Jawal Nga, David Raymond
Writer: Darci Picoult
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Editor: Oriana Soddu
Cast: Danai Gurira, Isaach De Bankolé, Yaya DaCosta, Anthony Okungbowa, Bukky Ajayi, Angélique Kidjo
Premiere: January 18, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
Twin Cities Premiere: November 22, 2013 – Images of Africa Film Festival
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Following a few opening credits emblazoned boldly on the screen, we are again transplanted to a unique and lavish world—this time a traditional Nigerian wedding hosted at a restaurant in Brooklyn. Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach de Bankolé), Nigerian expatriates, tie the knot in a joyous celebration exploding with color; as percussive Nigerian rhythms play and lines of dancers, robed in sparkling gold, sashay across the screen in gorgeous parallel tracking shots, we feel we are truly immersed in this singular setting. It is in moments like these that the director, Andrew Dosunmu (himself a Nigerian expat who currently lives in both Lagos and New York), displays his respect for his native culture—its richness, its uniqueness, its longstanding traditions.
Yet even in this ravishing scene, there are elements of unease that presage the drama to come. Two jarring shots introduce us to the male and female members of the wedding party separately, as first the bridesmaids then the groomsmen stare down the camera directly, their genders distinctly segregated. Ayodele’s mother (Bukky Ajayi) prophetically assures Adenike that she will provide their family with twins, a son and a daughter; later, the mother-in-law will tie an amulet around Adenike’s waist in order to enhance fertility. Meanwhile, as Ayodele converses with his friends, one man advises him that when (not if) he is unfaithful, he should always return home to his loyal wife. The more conservative gender politics of traditional Nigerian culture are posited as an inevitable conflict in their marriage.
Indeed, when Adenike is unable to conceive a child after almost a year of marriage, she is harshly reprimanded by both her mother-in-law and her own mother. The fault, they allege, lies entirely with Adenike, though it eventually becomes clear that Ayodele is sterile. Adenike tries to convince her husband to see a fertility doctor, though Ayodele—sweet and understanding as he is much of the time—adamantly refuses, seeing this suggestion as an affront to his virility. Much of the family suggests that he take another wife, though Ayodele proclaims that he loves Adenike and wants only her. Ultimately Adenike, at the accusatory urging of her mother-in-law, settles on a shocking solution that practically guarantees a traumatic emotional fallout.
Though these characters are mired in intense personal confrontations, Mother of George is not so much about people battling each other as about individuals resisting (and sometimes embracing) their culture. Adenike is truly the victim of a sexual conservatism that sees pregnancy and motherhood as the ultimate domain of femininity. Even the title of the movie suggests this, as Adenike is defined entirely by the male heir (George, named after Ayodele’s deceased father) she is expected to bear. When she tries to find a job, claiming that she wants her own money instead of relying on Ayodele’s, he hurtfully pronounces that no wife of his will have to work. Yet the film is too sympathetic towards its characters to portray a simple man vs. woman antagonism; no character is vilified here (including Ayodele’s mother, who instigates her turbulent plan for bearing a grandchild with little consideration of the emotional destruction it will cause), and it’s obvious that Ayodele and Adenike love each other intensely. In one scene, Adenike brings lunch to Ayodele at the restaurant he owns, serving him sumptuous Nigerian dishes as he cooks for his patrons; the loving, unspoken bond between the two of them is remarkably conveyed by Isaach de Bankolé and Danai Gurira.
De Bankolé (who will likely be familiar to some viewers from White Material, Casino Royale, or several Jim Jarmusch films, among many others) is always a magnetic and commanding presence onscreen, and his Ayodele is no different—he’s a well-intentioned man at the mercy of culture and biology. Danai Gurira (of Zimbabwean heritage, and a graduate of Macalester’s social psychology program) powerfully conveys Adenike’s simultaneous strength and vulnerability; her actions might be reprehensible at times but they’re also entirely understandable. Mother of George demands a great deal of subtlety and fervor from its cast, and they succeed tremendously.
The characters and their embattled relationships are conveyed through a chilly aesthetic dominated by slow camera movements and muted grays, blacks, and cool blues. The digital cinematography by Bradford Young is the antithesis of his 35mm work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: whereas that film is visually lush and inviting, Mother of George is often dissonant and foreboding, as though the characters are stumbling through an unfathomable world. Numerous shots envision Adenike strolling down Brooklyn streets, her graceful movements accompanied alternately by somber jazz or Nigerian percussion, evoking her sense of dislocation. There is a clear purpose to the film’s sober aesthetic: Adenike’s eye-popping wardrobe (composed of traditional Nigerian dresses made from vibrant colors and patterns) often provides the only spark of color in the frame, centralizing her character visually as well as emotionally. Yet Mother of George’s commanding style paradoxically hampers the film’s impact at times, as it’s difficult to be moved by such a subdued, wintry tone. For the first hour at least, Mother of George resembles a character study that holds its characters at arms’ length, or a family drama in which each emotional altercation is hushed and stoic.
Thankfully, though, as emotions become tempestuous and relationships are endangered in the last half hour, the tone of the film becomes more unhinged. The camera, so calm and impartial for much of the movie, is increasingly handheld, seemingly eager to console (or at least accompany) the characters in their heightening desperation. A frigid sense of alienation gives way to fervent compassion, especially in a final shot that atypically observes Ayodele in a handheld frontal close-up—sympathizing with his conflicting emotions and sweetly suggesting that reconciliation and forgiveness are still possible for these characters.
The director, Andrew Dosunmu, began his career in advertising and fashion, eventually directing commercials and music videos for artists such as Isaac Hayes, Angie Stone, Wyclef Jean, and Talib Kweli. Following a number of documentaries (including The African Game, which centers on the significance of soccer in Dosunmu’s home continent), Dosunmu made his feature fiction debut with 2011’s Restless City. With Mother of George, he manages to blend a cerebral style with undeniable compassion for his characters—a balancing act that’s problematic at times, but ultimately affecting. Coupled with a subtle script by playwright Darci Picoult (based on the real-life experiences of female African immigrants whom Picoult interviewed in New York), Mother of George succeeds in telling a story that’s both intimately personal and culturally revealing. Adenike and Ayodele’s story may be particular to immigrants grappling with the traditions of their culture in an adopted homeland, but their sorrow and joy is, at heart, profoundly relatable.