Context is everything. When it was released in 1979, indie drama Bush Mama was part of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement, which involved black filmmakers providing unvarnished glimpses at street life. Like the most celebrated example of this movement, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (which was completed in 1975 but not commercially screened until 2007), Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama explodes with cultural authenticity and sociopolitical anger, so its myriad flaws, ranging from grubby black-and-white photography to a meandering screenplay, matter less than the relevance of the material. In the context of the late ’70s, Bush Mama might have seemed revelatory. Seen today, it comes across as amateurish and repetitive, even though issues explored in the film are just as important as they were in 1979, if not more so.
Set in an L.A. neighborhood plagued by crime and poverty, Bush Mama concerns Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), a wife and mother struggling to get by. Her husband, T.C. (Johnny Weathers), is a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. Cops arrest T.C. on bogus charges, and he gets sent to prison. Then Dorothy must not only care for their child, but also decide what to do once she learns she’s pregnant again. Much of the film cuts back and forth between realistic scenes of Dorothy at home and stylized scenes of T.C. in prison. The Dorothy scenes feature clashes with social workers and encounters with friends who are similarly bedeviled by problems stemming from systemic racism. The T.C. scenes have a beat-poetry feel, with inmates delivering long speeches about oppression from behind bars. Taken together, these plot threads explain how and why Dorothy becomes radicalized, thereby articulating the underlying ethos of the L.A. Rebellion itself.
Viewed as an artifact of vintage political art, Bush Mama is endlessly interesting because it juxtaposes humanistic and purely rhetorical elements. Viewed as proper cinema, Bush Mama much less impressive—though it must be noted that, like Killer of Sheep, this is essentially a student film. Gerima made Bush Mama while completing his MFA at UCLA circa 1975, four years before the movie gained a theatrical release. Perhaps that’s why some of the most effective moments in Bush Mama are the simplest. Whenever Gerima trains his camera on Jones quietly existing, the weight on her character’s shoulders painfully visible, he expresses as much truth as he does in long monologues.
Bush Mama: FUNKY