The Power of “Bantú Mama” and the Need for Authentic Afro Caribbean Storytelling in Film

woman and two children hugging on a couch in a dim room

photo courtesy of ARRAY

by Latoya Austin

Recently, Caribbean and African films have appeared more frequently in film festival programs. Given their sparse appearance historically, this poses the question about audiences’ general knowledge of the depths of Caribbean films. Of course, audiences may be familiar with Cool Runnings, with its depiction of the Jamaican bobsleigh team, but this is only one story (told by Americans) across a rich tapestry of experiences and storytelling that remains relatively unknown. It’s unlikely that audiences have been exposed to the different, nuanced narratives across the diasporas beyond the negative connotations or the stereotypical view of African immigrants or Caribbean Island life, full of reggae music, beaches, and sunshine. 

Thankfully, films, such as Bantú Mama, have challenged those prejudices. Ivan Herrera’s Bantú Mama provides a different perspective of the Caribbean as it explores the tale of Emma, a French-Cameroonian (Afropean) woman who travels from France, but ends up trapped in the Dominican Republic after a business deal goes wrong. The film highlights a humane, nurturing side to the citizens living within the impoverished district of Santo Domingo. The film also emphasises those differences between African rituals (generically termed ‘Bantu’) and those from the Dominican Republic. Equally, Bantú Mama subtly demonstrates that the Caribbean is not monolithic by visually exploring the differences between a French speaking Haiti and the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic. 

The film interweaves a positive outlook by emphasizing the rich colors of Santo Domingo and ultimately eschews the stereotypical portrayal of Caribbean Island life. There is also a spotlight on the different dance styles, food, and diverse musical influences from the Dominican Republic   including music by Mediumship and Boddhi Satva, whose track features Gnawa vocals from previously enslaved persons deriving from Morocco. The importance of including such local touches provides a positive introduction to the diverse musical talent in effect from such countries.

This perception shift has also been assisted by initiatives such as the Twelve30 Collective, which spotlights Caribbean films.  “The Caribbean is so culturally and linguistically diverse [that] it’s always challenging to make assertions about the region as a whole,” says Lisa Harewood, a filmmaker and the co-founder of the Twelve30 Collective,  via email. “In the same way that Francophone African cinema has traditionally had a higher profile than the output from the rest of the continent, the English-speaking Caribbean has lagged behind Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and even Haiti in terms of access to European and American funding, industry networks and external audiences.”

Between 2019 to 2022, films like Bantú Mama, Stateless, Imperial Blue, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, and Blind Ambition have illustrated the complexities of both the Caribbean and African diasporas, but have either received limited releases or else have solely featured on the festival circuit. Bantú Mama, for example, is only receiving a release on Netflix nearly 18 months after its initial appearance on the festivals circuit with a limited cinematic release beforehand, following Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY’s acquisition of the film for distribution. The film was also just selected as the Dominican Republic’s entry for the International Feature category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Other Caribbean films, however, have unfortunately not received such levels of recognition, and are subjected to that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be viewed during the film festival season.

This aspect further emphasises the need for these films to be recognized for their individual merits, not to be buried within generic categorization and ultimately to receive that greater funding and support. “Caribbean film has in some ways been badly served by being shoehorned in with Latin American and sometimes African cinema, it is neither.  It is very much on the margins of world cinema searching for home and an identity away from certain stereotypical expectations,” says Harewood, expanding on this need. “There have been good even great films made in the Caribbean prior to these last few years, but they have struggled to gain exposure to audiences overseas and even at home… It would be wonderful if the recent successes of films like Bantú Mama bring sustained attention and resources to the region as a whole.”

Bantú Mama‘s emphasis on these nuances are certainly in need of further exploration as a universal attempt to capture these diverse experiences and storytelling across the Caribbean diaspora. Be Manzini, the poet, artist, filmmaker, and director of Caramel Film Club, agrees: “There is something to be said for intentionality in terms of making and exhibiting film and projects that cast, celebrate and go beyond what we have been seeing on our screens for decades.” She continues over Instagram, “I advocate for films where the global majority are not minoritized.  No one, child or adult, as many of us did, should have to seek out reflections of ourselves in a beautiful diverse world… it should not be a privilege, just a natural expression of the world we live in.”

Other films, such as the documentary Stateless (2020), delve into the plight of undocumented citizens of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic with one woman’s quest to fight for the under-represented. There are parallels with Bantú Mama, which contains a distressing scene of undocumented Haitian citizens targeted for arrest. These films play an important role in raising consciousness and presenting these issues on the international stage.  

For Clarisse Albrecht screenwriter, producer, and actor of Bantú Mama it was equally important to focus on the positives within such examples of adversity. “What we wanted to share about the impoverished conditions, is that it is not necessarily a life of sorrow and pain, that there is beauty, joy, and human feelings,” Albrecht explains over email.  “People living in such conditions are real people with daily lives, entertainment, jobs, friends and dreams.  However, even if we did not focus on a negative angle, we wanted to show that to get out of there, you have to make drastic decisions and enormous sacrifices, just as T.I.N.A. in the film.”

This personal impact of showing positivity despite adversity is a common theme running through these referenced African and Caribbean films. However, the landscape is slightly different for the development of Caribbean films compared to their African counterparts. Historically, there has been the production of African films such as Yeelen (1987), which was the first cinematic film from the African diaspora and of course there is Nollywood as an industry producing content from Nigeria. Caribbean cinema, to date, has not received such widespread recognition as very often the films depicting a Caribbean narrative derive from the U.S. or the U.K..  As such, there is equally a rich tapestry of Caribbean stories to explore as mentioned by the Twelve30 Collective and Albrecht.

The Ugandan documentary film Once Upon a Time in Uganda also highlights difficulties for African films. Director Isaac Nabwana’s struggle to make Ugandan action films is strikingly documented within the film.  Nabwana expressed during a festival Q&A session that he wished to show a different, positive Ugandan experience within his films compared to the common stereotypical perceptions. Nabwana has also founded the studio Wakaliwood as an equivalent to Hollywood based in Wakaliga, Uganda.    

Exploding onto the international stage is the documentary Blind Ambition which equally seeks to challenge those biases towards migrants with a positive representation of four men who travelled from Zimbabwe to South Africa and become sommeliers along that journey. The film had been described as the Cool Runnings for the wine industry with its focus on a team competition as the men, as part of Team Zimbabwe, challenge the wine industry internationally. It is a viewpoint rarely seen and also challenges the typically conservative wine industry to embrace diversity.  Blind Ambition’s energy and passion further demonstrates the need for more of these independent projects concerning the African and Caribbean diasporas to be financed to bring these personal stories to the forefront.

We certainly hope that this increased recognition of Caribbean cinema will continue, following success stories like Bantú Mama, as it is an ongoing battle for increased funding for these films within the African and Caribbean diasporas.  Wider distribution will also be key as sometimes the only opportunity to view these films will be within film festival programs and so we hope that audiences will be curious to explore more of these captivating African and Caribbean stories on film.

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