Professor, Writer and Director Haile Gerima’s 1975 student thesis film Bush Mama premiered on the independent and student film circuit a year before I was born. I was born in the small-town Midwest: Kankakee, Illinois, a town most people have not heard of and can barely pronounce when they do. Once I was born, I was sheltered within a small-town American context where segregated, working class Blacks had license to freely indict country “honkies” for their devilish ways and country “niggers” for their shiftlessness. The worst thing was to attack or judge others who could be lower, to not work a job but to take handouts, or to leave your children behind. These were all equal sins.
To be a poor Black woman with children was not necessarily in equal category.
Bush Mama is set in the mid-1970’s Los Angeles’ neighborhood of Watts— a hotbed of racial unrest, discriminatory atrocity and overall victimization of the Black war veterans, economic underclass, unemployed, mothers, children and citizens who called it home. Its story depends on characters who commit all the above sins. The film inserts the Western United States into America’s long and torturous history of sanctioned Black oppression, a historical narrative that primarily runs a pole North or South. With Bush Mama, Gerima exposes the California region he came to call home after he emigrated there from Chicago, after he emigrated to Chicago from Ethiopia: for its astonishing commitment to institutionalized hierarchy, its hover under the national racism radar and its particular cruelty to Gerima as an African in America who was subject to “Negro” prejudices anyway.
Bush Mama is about Dorothy (Barbara O), a Black woman who lives in a deteriorated apartment with her pre-teen daughter Luann (Susan Williams). She enjoys brief benefits to include the daughter’s father in her household: before he ships off to the Vietnam War, and then after he ambles back from Vietnam only to arrive at prison for a crime he did not commit. She exists on welfare. Her small monthly government stipend carries a variety of rules, regulations, stipulations and controls: she may not drink alcohol, she must answer to innumerable intimate and petty details of her life, she must travel from government agency to government agency to display her worthiness to receive benefits.
A strange collective of women across a wide generational range provide a comforting shell Dorothy burrows within. One teenage woman drops off radical, revolutionary posters and mantras on days she keeps company with Dorothy or her daughter. Another, a head-wrapped mother figure, doles out slices of much-appreciated sweet potato pie over sage wisdom brewed within a deep Black political consciousness. And Dorothy’s more contemporary friend Molly (Cora Lee Day), part she-devil and part feminist preacher, appears most regularly out of nowhere. Molly carries an odd assortment of items to define her hard-won originality in a world where Blacks are forced into a monolithic tableau: liquor bottles she gives Dorothy despite welfare rules against it, cigarettes as common as fingers, and a blonde wig as her trophy for winning the fight a love triangle brings.
But despite these healthy and full personalities around Dorothy, the voice of her missing man T.C. (Johnny Weathers) haunts her. He is behind bars, with his intelligence and power to the community castrated. He dances with organized confusion in a decrepit jail cell. I was first struck by Bush Mama’s depiction of such a love affair between a Black man and woman. I had only seen such in the Cicely Tyson film adaptation of William Armstrong’s novel Sounder, about a Black family in the South and the false imprisonment of the family’s patriarch due to racism. My first novel, Upstate, was born of a fierce Black male voice writing to his woman as he alternately withers and blossoms in a New York prison in accusation to patricide. Bush Mama, which I first saw in class under Professor Jacqueline Stewart’s “Race Films” course, contributed to my main character’s birth and voice; Gerima’s TC makes his prison cell his own pedestal, his pen and paper his weapons, and his memory his own version of a twisted celebrity that will not vanish.
Then Bush Mama’s unpredictable, schizophrenic, jarring visual and audio compositions struck me next. When I watch Bush Mama, I feel like I am inside the mind of a woman driven insane by catalysts that have nothing to do with who she is or who she should have been but everything to do with the forces around her, and they all will like her better if she is insane. In that way, it does not remind me of a Black love affair I have rarely seen on film. It becomes a reluctant, nebulous Black horror read such as Beloved.
Nearly 40 years after a film such as Bush Mama should have made audiences laugh, smile, clap and experience horrific chills along with sadness at the characters’ lives, major audiences have not progressed beyond a three-track mind (or response) in terms of Black cinema or Black characters in film: if it is not slapstick, it must be sad and pitiful, or it must be as uplifting and cheery as a Mammy’s lactating breasts were to her foreign sucklings. The range of so many other possibilities and genres—thriller, horror, cerebral, psychological portrait, character sketch—have not opened to Blacks in film. Gerima admits to being terrified at the racism he felt in America and finding a cave from it within African-American makeshift families. A confused horror permeates his first feature-length film. But, horror is the last place Dorothy and her story would be placed. With Bush Mama, Gerima invented sociohorror: perhaps more of the type depicted in Brian DePalma’s Carrie based on the novel by Stephen King, whereby weird looks and a lower class status lead to the persecuted main character’s final slaughter of her upper class peers.
The iconography of Bush Mama’s religious-infused sociohorror rivals such classic pictures of the seventies as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen series. Far from grisly and insufferable slasher films (there is only one direct murder in Bush Mama), this era of Hollywood scariness held its place between premature B/W special effects and eighties’ maturity with freed-up bloody license on-camera. Seventies cinematic auteurs wove their viewers into spiritual, mental and psychological webs. Ninety minutes was never enough. For, to draw viewers into extreme human dilemmas of choice and existence and cerebral explosion, an auteur (and his viewers) needed time, patience, understanding and focus into the human mind. Gerima accomplishes this with a measure of verisimilitude that creates a documentary-feel for the film.
Gerima’s camera belongs entirely to Dorothy’s character first, and to her mind next. And, Dorothy’s mind has been torn apart. Bush Mama starts frenetically with a wild percussive soundtrack overlain with interrogative voices that represent society’s chronic stoning of women like Dorothy. From there, we witness Dorothy’s inexplicable and possibly imaginary verbal stoning from every character in the film who will purport to love her throughout it. Her reception of a welfare check identifies her as a whore if not in her own world but in the White world, enough to bring her shame and scorn until she cries rather than dies.
Gerima introduces Dorothy sitting in a chair as if on trial. She must answer to society, her loved ones and herself for being poor, fertile, alcoholic and… poor and fertile. After seeing the movie more than a few times, I am still unsure whether this early circle of verbal abuse and tribal intervention really happened in Dorothy’s life or if it is our early introduction to her tendency to disassociate from ongoing mass abuse she has grown accustomed to. She is not stoned like Mary Magdelene. She is not burned at the stake, nor given a scarlet letter. Her body appears immune to persecution, yet her mind is not. Methodical mental torture takes the place of bodily transgress. By the end, it is her daughter’s body that is subject to such pain in an event that would have made for a much-lesser character and story if Dorothy herself had endured it.
After Gerima sets a tone to allow Dorothy’s ongoing mental stoning to play as par for the course to her viewers, the love story begins. T.C. is home. He surprises Dorothy with plans to get a job to make a victorious and unheard of $150 a week. Dorothy consoles him through his nightmares. The entire family eats a government-subsidized dinner together. Suddenly, T.C. disappears and winds up in a jail cell. Viewers are unsure why. It does not matter. With the strong masculine balance to her oppressed feminine psyche suddenly absent, and a best friend to dance with and skip through the streets holding, Dorothy goes mad.
Before T.C. left, Dorothy got pregnant again. The welfare regulators pressure her to abort the child out of shame; she has created another poor, Black mouth to feed. Ordinary objects personify into visceral touchstones to the life she has lost: married, happy, in possession of a nice home, with the power to speak out, without pressure to wait three long hours in the unemployment office just to hear there are no jobs. She stares out of the window alone to remember a time that T.C. pushed her to dance in their living room without any music. She finishes repairing her daughter’s dress to hang it beside an overcoat she once wore on a night she walked with T.C. She imagines a liquor bottle as a murder weapon when a Caribbean social worker lectures her into abortion; in her mind, she will smash the glass bottle to the woman’s head. In reality, she is prostrate. She looks to a poster of an African “Bush Mama,” with a rifle and her child in a sling, as if these are real people she should really talk to. Later on, Black films such as Gerima’s own 1993 speculative slave film Sankofa, 1997’s Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons) and 1998’s Beloved (Jonathan Demme) would bypass the urban violence “hood” film which had Black filmmakers accosted for violent messages. These aforementioned films would centralize Blacks’ minds and spirits as the rotted focus of violence and horror, suffered as such only because of low American standing its characters can barely live through.
Under the weight of her impending abortion, a severely condemned and even spiritually-damning action in communities of color, Dorothy cracks and retreats into her own psychological space even more and more. Dorothy re-imagines a Black man with his face obscured by a stocking cap stretched over it; like the Black males who are gunned by the police without vindication, this nameless character appears crucified in juxtaposition to her growing child inside her stomach. She imagines that she runs to the head of a church and collapses at the cross. These are homages to the traditional Black American coping mechanism of unquestioning and staunch religious belief, not controversial or blasphemous moves meant to sensationalize what is easily sensational.
Her unborn child, whom Dorothy should or should not respect to live, becomes the serial killer to its own mother’s potential and better dreams for herself: to be something like what Claire Huxtable would become to us 10 years later, or more of what Florida Evans was to us in Bush Mama’s time, but never a vile and mad competitor with her own fetus as they both subliminally justify their right to live together simultaneously in a “free” country.
Bush Mama. Directed by Haile Gerima. Released in 1979. Running time: 97 minutes.
Barbara O. (as Barbara O. Jones) – Dorothy
Johnny Weathers – T.C.
Susan Williams – Luann
Cora Lee Day – Molly
Simmi Ella Nelson – Simmi
Bettie J. Wilson – Social Worker
Bob Ogburn Jr. – Dahomey man
Ben Collins – Ben
Renna Kraft – Angi
Darian Gibbs – Young Street Boy
Minnie Stewart – 1st Welfare Recipient
Malbertha Pickett – 2nd Welfare Recipient
Bertha Yates – Secretary
Chris Clay – Policeman
Charles David Brooks III – Preacher