Film Review: ‘Bantú Mama’
Written by Tola Ositelu
French national, Emmanuelle (Clarisse Albrecht) is apprehended on the way back from the Dominican Republic for suspected drug trafficking. Whilst en route to detention, her police van is involved in a dreadful collision. Emmanuelle miraculously survives to make her escape. Washed up on a local beach in San Domingo, she’s discovered and taken in by a couple of practically orphaned adolescents: Tina (Scarlet Reyes) and older brother, $hulo (Arturo Perez). With one parent dead and the other in jail, Emma assumes a maternal role – imparting elements of her own Cameroonian mother’s Bantu culture to the teenagers and their little brother, Cuki (Euris Javiel). Meanwhile, as $hulo and Tina arrange legal support for Emma, the authorities draw ever closer to her hideout. With the help of their sketchy backstreet lawyer (Donis Taveras), the siblings conspire to help Emma make a speedy and clandestine exit from the island. However, their assistance comes with a life-changing demand in return.
Co-written by former model, singer/songwriter – and now actress – Albrecht and her significant other, director Ivan Herrera, Bantú Mama is a transatlantic reconciliation of sorts. Both of mixed-heritage, the creators’ ambition for this multi-lingual film is to reflect the ever-present diaspora links between Africa, Europe and the Americas; as a result of – and beyond – the slave trade. There is no macro socio-historic discourse about its legacy. Rather, Emmanuelle’s relationship with her surrogate family is yet one iteration of many culturally interrelated stories.
Albrecht delivers a subtly accomplished performance in her first feature-length leading role. Her young co-stars’ portrayals are also assured and naturalistic. Sebastián Carrera Chelin’s cinematography is sumptuous, honouring both the splendid Dominican landscape as well as blackness in its various shades of glory. Albrecht and Herrera’s film serves as a love-letter to their Spanish Caribbean home. Whilst acknowledging the hardships of its deprived communities, the creative couple prefer to focus on the island’s warmth and instinctive hospitality; embodied by the three youngsters.
Intentional or not, Bantú Mama does have an air of the fantastical about it. The audience must supposedly suspend disbelief as three impoverished siblings – at least two of whom are minors – manage to keep a roof over their head and food in their bellies without being in either work or study. There are hints at questionable activity behind the scenes but it remains nebulous. The kids happen to have spare attire lying around the house, that by some fluke fit their adult guest with ease. Emma apparently has access to enough funds to shop in local markets, despite only having the clothes on her back when she’s found by $hulo and Tina. There are too many such plot gaps and coincidences to mention without giving it all away. The film also feels lightweight at times. Partly owing to the aforementioned surfeit of Deus ex-Machina moments. Partly because the characters – not least Emma – lack detail and proper context. Her life in France and what brings her to the Dom. Rep. are never seriously explored. It’s as if the film-makers feared a little more conflict and drama could disturb the wistful equilibrium.
Whatever its narrative shortcomings, this Amero-Afropean indie has already achieved a number of laudable feats. Eventually picked up by Netflix, Bantú Mama has been a darling of the international festival circuit for some time. In January alone, it has been nominated for a NAACP Image Award and selected for entry at the 2023 FESPACO Pan-African Festival in Burkina Faso this month. In addition to being the Dominican Republic’s submission for the Best International Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, it has landed Albrecht a feature in The Final Chapters; the latest instalment of The Best Man franchise. The Mulata Universal’s done good indeed.
Bantú Mama – available on Netflix in select regions.
This review also features on the blog, I Was Just Thinking…