Andrew Dosunmu’s Sundance hit presents a tale as old as time, yet lively, immediate, downright kinetic visual craftsmanship ensures it remains as trenchant and pointed today as at any time in history. Adenika (Danai Gurira), a Nigerian immigrant to America, marries Ayodele (Isaach de Bankole) and spends a good many months struggling with him to produce a baby. They are not sure what precisely is wrong, yet whatever initiatives they try fail. Ayodele’s mother Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi) desperately wants the baby, perhaps more than either of its hypothetical parents, and she has an alternative, somewhat unsavory suggestion about how to resolve it. It’s a tale of simple, distraught, confident, torn emotions, but as with most movies, it is the story-telling, and not the story, that comes through in the end.
And what storytelling! It’s an easy thing, here, as with any film, to lose oneself in the acting, but these performers genuinely deserve the praise. Gurira in particular commands the screen, all the more so because she has to do so with a quiet lulling over her from beginning to end. She is a strong, determined, confident women, but not a boisterous, active person, and her emotions are driven home through low-key gestures of worry and confusion, or willful persistence in the face of difficulty, and not showy Oscar gestures. Every performance is strong here – Bukky Ajayi in particular uses her few scenes to stellar effect, finding conflicted, dogged emotions in the quiet spaces of scenes where she is meant more to look on, wonder, and stare with pensive energy, hope, and contempt more than speak her mind. But Gurira steals the show.
With the caveat that she has some able competition behind the screen in the form of Dosunmu’s radiant, flowery, vivid storytelling skills and, in particular, the scintillating work of cinematographer Bradford Young. Entering the big leagues with a duo of beautiful December 2014 prestige pics, Young is a talent to look forward to, but despite his lovely achievements in both 2014 works, neither have anything on the visual majesty and lively color-as-storytelling of Mother of George, a homegrown work of almost jaw-dropping visual elegance and a tapestry of pure visual storytelling.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a good movie would lay all bare with the sound off. He might have been speaking of Mother of George (even if his style, admittedly, is as far away from Dosunmu’s as humanly possible). Even if some of the specific details would be lost, the emotional heft would retain its luster with such astounding purity it brings a smile to the face. Young’s glistening, shimmering style (although not one he retains for every film) gives the work an air of conceptual art, with shots swaying into each other like patches on a quilt. He shows here what he showed in 2014, namely that no working American cinematographer understands light and romantically back-lit hues better, his work finding for the film a certain crystalline misty hue that affords the piece an existentially glowing importance.
Better yet, his work under Dosunmu’s eye hits close to home for the work’s subject matter, capturing a form of cultural immediacy and improvisational artwork that establishes emotions in raw, fiery colors exactly as the Yoruba people the film depicts do in their everyday lives. Adenika’s dress becomes a focal point, drawing the eye and traipsing about to sell her soul bare all by itself. The color almost always reflects her current emotional state (exactly as a person might consciously or subconsciously reflect their emotional states in their clothing choices). Scenes are a canvas upon which theatrical emotion is given fully to us, rekindling a distinctly African spirit of Yoruba art so carefully, excitingly blended into life itself for the people the camera depicts. As a side benefit, Dosunmu’s passion so thoroughly flies in the face of the de facto aesthetic of the modern Sundance indie by rejecting the grays and muddy browns of neo-realism for highly stylized primary colors, uplifting scenes to ballets of interacting primary lights that move with grace and fluidity and infuse themselves into the hearts of the characters.
Thus, Mother of George’s performance of raw color and raw emotion plays a difficult song, but nails both ends of its dualistic style: it is both carefully, judiciously specific to the culture it depicts and entirely, breathlessly, boldly timeless. The story unfolds with a stark immediacy and sense of present-tense place, yet it has the air of an African fable descended through a lineage of kin, whispered among friends, rumored, bolstered by changes over time, and shared as a slice of hard-won life in a bottle.
It’s a beautiful slice of culture altogether, not simply for the color (although that is undoubtedly its defining gesture, and it could not exist as the powerful story it is without this primary visual motif); other slighter details, like the way the camera moves in welcoming scenes and sighs a quiet stillness when Adenika is more reflective or hit with a bout of self-doubt, are such graceful, simple ideas one wants to make the film essential viewing for any would-be filmmaker. As a painter with a camera, Dosunmu brings animated, outgoing, buoyant cinema alive again, working from a cloth of his own culture and thoroughly rejecting the lazy, increasingly dour boredom of the modern American indie aesthetic.