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“Bantú Mama"—first Dominican film to get NAACP Best International Picture award.
"Bantú Mama" is a beautiful work of art that offers, as Marjua Estevez writes for Refinery29, "vestiges of…shared negritude."
Last week "Bantú Mama" won the NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding International Motion Picture."
The film, which runs at about an hour and 17 minutes, was first released in 2021 and on Netflix last November, and it is based on a screenplay by Clarisse Albrecht, who plays Emmanuelle, and director Ivan Herrera.
"Bantú Mama" is stunning. The camera is slow and focused; every shot, whether a street or the water or a bedroom or an alley, feels intentional. In "Why Bantú Mama's Win at the NAACP Image Awards Matters" for Refinery29's SOMOS, writer Marjua Estevez writes about the film's win, the movie's uplifting of the diaspora, and interviews Albrecht.
I appreciate how Estevez connects the film's cinematography with Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight."
This comparison is on point, especially in the film's various water scenes, which feel redemptive. The movie begins in France, and 40 minutes into the film, we learn the children live in Capotillo, a working-class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. Albrecht talked to Estevez about the intentionality behind filming the scenes. "This poetry, this elegance, we wanted to put on screen and give proof of their existence. Of this kind of community, love, and care that is not typically shown in places like El Capotillo. Our focus was the humanity of this place and the wondrous people living in it."
"Bantú Mama" shows how young Dominican children are forced into self-resilience.
"Bantú Mama" follows Emmanuelle, a French Cameroonian woman arrested in the Dominican Republic. She escapes and gets help from three children, siblings Tina, Shulo, and Cuki. The kids' mother is dead, their father in prison, and Emmanuelle becomes a maternal figure, especially for Tina and Cuki.
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I enjoyed the children's characters and how they feel like someone I know or love. Shulo, played by Arturo Perez, is funny, creative, and suspicious; Tina, Scarlet Reyes, is formidable, guarded, and thoughtful; Cuki, played by Euris Javiel, is quiet, playful, curious, and trusting. Cuki is the character that pulls at me the most because he is innocent, longing for maternal or paternal love.
"Bantú Mama" shows how young Dominican children are forced into self-resilience, how they survive and support each other as orphans, and how they are willing to save someone who needs help. They help Emmanuelle first, without asking questions. It is not until she is in their home, drinking water and more relaxed, that they ask her questions about her situation.
“Si tu me ayuda, yo te ayudo,” Tina tells Emma later in the film, and repeats it again, “Si tu me ayuda, yo te ayudo.”
The characters are never violent, despite participating in violent colonial systems. We merely see them meet their material needs under capitalism and foreign colonialist and imperialist influence by whatever means necessary.
The film does not ignore how the children struggle to survive and what it takes to live and grow as three kids without parental or familial support.
My favorite scenes are when Emma gets braids on the beach, she and the children discuss cooking platanos, and she takes Cuki swimming.
In one scene, when they are still getting to know each other, Cuki and Emmanuelle talk; the children hear her French accent and ask if she is Haitian. She says she is Bantú. “Y tu puede se Bantú y francesa al mimo tiempo?” Cuki asks Emma. Emma tells them neither eliminates the other. They discuss the Maasai and, indirectly, how colonialism/imperialism disconnects the diaspora. They jump like the Maasai from Kenya, honoring, and Emma teaches Tina how to wrap her hair with a scarf and what each style means.
After leaving the children’s home one day, Emma is arrested by the national police and placed into a van with other women and men, all darker than she. Her lawyer pays the officer, and she is released. The camera pans away from her to the young girl sitting next to her, where it rests on her for a few seconds. She is unblinking and stoic, a rage behind her eyes because no one is paying or fighting for her freedom.
It is one of the most poignant moments in an already evocative film.
"Bantú Mama" is a story about a woman on the run who meets children living and creating and surviving under empire. They are all African-descended and show how colonialism has impacted African and Caribbean culture, and how all are still connected through food, dance, music, and hair.
It is also a story about the ways we come in and out of each other's lives as Black people; colorism; the Haitian struggle and migration and policing in the Dominican Republic; the way money affects our familial and intimate relationships; the ways that Black kids are thrown or left in the unknown, forced to live by the choices of adults around them.
The film, beautiful and offering what Estevez describes as "vestiges of…shared negritude," ends in Senegal, and it elicits nostalgia in viewers. As the Bronx changes, I wonder about the Dominican exodus that has started out of New York City and how many of us are returning to the island. "Bantú Mama" is a beautiful work of art that forces me to think about what it means to build a deeper connection to my family and history and island while also understanding that our exodus toward the motherland we left behind means changing the lives and spaces of those who stayed.
Estevez is a brilliant first-generation Dominican culture writer and reporter.
Years ago, I saw her at a panel on Afro-Dominican identity. I cannot remember if she moderated or was a panelist, but she was so thoughtful about the place of Dominicans in the diaspora; that space helped me begin to unlearn my anti-blackness. She has written for Vibe, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Complex, and Remezcla. She wrote one of my favorite celebrity profiles, 2016's "Cardi B Doesn't Give A F**k, And Neither Should You."