Critic’s Notebook: Three Debut Features Give Depth and Dimension to Black Mothers

Critic’s Notebook: Three Debut Features Give Depth and Dimension to Black Mothers

Do you see her? The Black mother wiping her son’s inner eye on a Harlem corner? It’s the late ’90s and she’s piecing her life back together after a prison stint. What about the mother positioning an infant for a photo? She works at a studio, tucked in a Bay Area mall, trying to make ends meet before the birth of her third child. Or the Black mother lounging in her living room during a party? Guests, drunk on liquor and a good time, buzz around her as a young girl plays at her feet. 

These women are the central figures of three revelatory dramas released this year. In A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One, Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama and Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, which opens nationwide Nov. 3, Black mothers assume more complex roles than the ones Hollywood usually affords them. These protagonists are coming-of-age untraditionally, forging and reforging identities against invisible barriers. They meet underestimation and chronic neglect with a spiky, almost wily determination. Their lives are a tangled web of personal desires and social expectations. And they choose — in the face of institutional violence and entrenched community values —to always save themselves. 

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Look hard. We’ve seen these women before. Their stories are scribbled in the indie margins of Hollywood history: The Gullah women anchoring Julie Dash’s radical drama Daughters of the Dust; Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) in Kasi Lemmons’ haunting Eve’s Bayou; and Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones) in Haile Gerima’s kinetic narrative Bush Mama are just a few of them. Following their forebears, Rockwell, Leaf and now Jackson have constructed distinctive cinematic styles that recast Black mothers as agents of their own lives instead of scapegoats of the state. 

Inez (Teyana Taylor) commands our attention and ignites our curiosity from the moment we meet her. Rockwell opens A Thousand and One, her bustling film set in the late ’90s and early aughts, at Rikers, where Inez is serving out the remainder of an 18-month prison sentence. A scene of the 22-year-old applying makeup on another inmate cuts to a low-angle shot of the mother roaming the streets of her old neighborhood, claiming back pay from her job and looking for her son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola). Their reunion is a bittersweet affair that ends with Inez “kidnapping” Terry from a foster home and creating a new life in Harlem. 

The achievement of Rockwell’s film — winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January — lies in Taylor’s performance. The actress finds depth in her character’s refusals and defensive postures. She mixes eye-rolls and steely stares with melodic laughs and heavy tears. Inez always gets her way and that gritty steadfastness — for better or worse — allows her to shape a life in spite of police violence, financial troubles and the rapid gentrification of her neighborhood. She yearns to be seen — by her friends, her partner (William Catlett), her son and, sometimes, by us. 

But Rockwell is protective. She supervises our curiosity through her adroit screenplay, which strategically discloses bits of Inez’s past to contextualize the character’s behavior. It’s all done with a light touch: Inez reveals personal history at random and slowly the young mother — who spent time in foster care herself, who masks her fragility with an iron exterior and who craves a home more than anything — comes into view. When Rockwell drops an eleventh-hour revelation, it complicates our perception of Inez, but it doesn’t negate our understanding of her interiority. 

The same sentiment applies to Gia (Tia Nomore), the protagonist of Leaf’s debut Earth Mama. Pregnant with her third child, Gia is fighting a system built to fail her. She struggles to balance the demands of a state-mandated program that will allow her to regain custody of her other two kids with her job assisting at a mall photo studio. Like Dorothy in Bush Mama, Gia repeatedly runs up against underestimation and condescension when interacting with people employed to help her. 

Instead of exploiting Gia’s trauma for cheap emotional impact, Leaf explores the psychic toll of this bureaucracy. The central portrait in Earth Mama is vulnerable and sensitive. The film finds its rhythm in quieter moments and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ camera creates an affecting, parallel narrative through close-ups. When Gia explores open adoption for her third child, she goes to lunch with a case worker (Erika Alexander) and potential parents. As the group relaxes into a more natural register, shedding the nervous energy of the introductions, the camera zeroes in on Gia’s face. She’s smiling, but her mind is elsewhere. A melancholic acceptance, marked by a creeping frown, settles as the young mother realizes the chasm between the kind of life she can provide for her child and the one on offer. 

Earth Mama is not all confession, though. Leaf, like Rockwell, plays with narrative withholding. A comment made by another mother in Gia’s class guides the film. “It’s my journey,” the woman says after an instructor asks her why people should care if she makes it. “You can hold my hand, you can look back from a distance, but you still won’t feel what I feel.” Gia is not opaque, but she’s not legible either. No matter how close the camera lingers on her face or her bulging belly, parts of her remain hidden. The surrealist moments — flashes of Gia meditating among towering redwoods, a branch growing from her navel — add to this air of mystery. 

If Rockwell and Leaf experiment with ambiguity, Jackson embraces it. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt finds freedom in its own cinematic grammar — the kind of poetic reticence and circularity found in Daughters of the Dust. Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a girl; Charleen McClure as an adult) anchors the elliptical narrative about a young woman coming of age in Mississippi. The film opens at a whisper and rarely intensifies. We see a young Mack learning how to trap catfish from her father (Chris Chalk), his gentle voice warning her not to let them go. Jomo Fray’s camera basks in textures the same way the scenes are immersed in sounds, focusing on the child’s fingers caressing the fish scales or her hand running through the babbling creek. 

Jackson revels in the details of her protagonist’s life: Mack’s reluctance to scale a fish; the young girl watching her mother (Sheila Atim) get ready for a party; a fire that distresses the neighborhood; a gaggle of teens climbing trees and swimming to pass the summer days. These flashes eventually cohere into a story and a portrait of a young, resolute woman. They also respond to the final lines of Eve’s Bayou: “Memory is the selection of images,” an older Eve (voiced by Tamara Tunie) says at the end of that film. “Each image is like a thread, each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture, and the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.” 

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a gorgeous mosaic of a woman choosing herself. In her teenage years, Mack starts a romance with Wood, the teasing boy next door played by Preston McDowell as a child and Reginald Helms Jr. as an adult. Their flirtation blossoms into a relationship. She gets pregnant. What to do with the child? The young woman gives birth but refuses motherhood. 

Mack doesn’t agonize over the decision. It only takes one conversation with her sister (Moses Ingram), who agrees to raise Mack’s baby as her own. In that choice, Jackson shapes a different kind of family narrative, one structured by a close-knit community and a freedom from judgment. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is unapologetic in its demands for patience and submission to a lyrical cadence. It treats the major and minor dramas of Mack’s life with tenderness and it asks audiences to do the same.

Embedded within Jackson, Rockwell and Leaf’s films are the tools we need not only to understand their protagonists, but to respect them. Mack, Inez and Gia have no use for our pity or concern. They see themselves clearly. These films reveal that it’s about time we did too.