There is a wedding scene at the beginning of Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George that exudes such richness, visual beauty, magic, and love, that I wanted to be in it. At a traditional Nigerian wedding ceremony in Brooklyn, main characters Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankole) forge a union that's blessed by elders, Orishas and full of lively music, hennaed hands, and shimmering gold fabric. As women and men sashay down the aisle to welcome their union, there is a feeling of great possibility and, most of all, expectation. But what happens when cultural expectations and norms are not met?
New film Mother of George is a candid portrait of the ways that culture, family, and isolation converge to create a particular kind of pressure on two people to build a family. The film centers on Adenike, an independent, loyal seamstress and her husband Ayodele, who owns of a restaurant aptly named "Jollof." Following their beautiful wedding, Adenike and Ayodele face difficulties conceiving a child, putting them at odds with cultural norms—specifically Ayodele's mother who, in an entrancing lush-blue post-wedding scene, bestows upon Adenike the honor of conceiving a son named for her deceased husband, George.
The script, deftly written by Darci Picoult, creates great range in its characters. While it would be easy to write certain characters as villains who betray each other, the script steers clear of stereotypes. Each character goes to great lengths to preserve their family and more importantly, to protect the "idea" of family to their community. Biyi, played by Anthony Okungbowa, gives an especially refreshing performance as Ayodele's wonderfully conflicted brother whose torn facial expressions help carry the film's escalating drama.
In the midst of the intimate cultural struggle, there's also a large isolating, urban world. As a recent immigrant, Adenike feels strangely distant from Brooklyn. The visual design complements this by presenting the city exterior mostly out-of-focus with shallow depth of field, while Adenike remains sharp, marked by the rich, colorful fabrics that she sews in her kitchen.
As time passes and the fertility issues become increasingly daunting, it is more difficult, visually, to feel physically connected to the characters. Director Dosonmu plants barriers in the frame: a disagreement occurs through a restaurant window, and Adenike's mother-in-law chastises her through a door outside the restaurant. This framing mirrors the isolation that Adenike experiences.
Photographed by master cinematographer Bradford Young (who won the 2013 Sundance Cinematography award for the project), the film comes alive in its emphasis on different parts of the body and how they are affected by the ongoing marital travails. The film starts with a glimmering, rich shot of Adenike's face, lit with traces of gold, unveiled to us for the first time at the wedding. Later, the camera expertly pulls focus between her worried, anxious eyes as her husband talks and laughs with two women at a party and when she's conflicted about his resistance to see a fertility doctor with her. Each stage of this crisis is captured on Adenike's face, and she comes to carry the narrative in this way.
There's also a wonderful emphasis on feet and hands as the bearers of tradition and struggle. Just as we witness the change in Adenike's face, we also witness the ways that hands and feet look and feel in these situations. In the wedding scene, hands are used to bless a union, bestow gifts, and caress. Later, they dangle from a bed, bare, anxiously stuff food into one's mouth, and reach out for a loved one who may be gone forever. The camera lingers on the body, allowing just as much meaning as a shot of a face or a conversation.
Director Dosunmu, who has an expansive photography background, makes a true art film in Mother of George and never strays from his directorial perspective to make things easy or predictable. You may want to see Brooklyn in focus, but you will not be able to. That's because the city is never quite in focus for its characters. It's Adenike's intimate struggle of conceiving a child and the tough decision she makes, that remains the center of the world, and of the narrative. There's a discomfort and a sort of suffocation that I experienced at times in the narrative, but I appreciated them because those feelings allowed me to empathize with Adenike and Ayodele even more.
When a weight of expectation is placed upon us, oftentimes the world looks and feels smaller, and largely out of focus. As a woman, when people ask if I am getting married, or if I have a potential mate, my answers don't fit most expectations. When I go home and hear my father talk of Islamic customs of marriage and union, I wonder where I fit into that tradition. I recently spoke with a man who said he'd end a relationship with a woman if she couldn't conceive children. This was after I'd seen this film and experienced the textured, complicated terrain involved in a decision like that. The themes in Mother Of George, while told from a specific cultural perspective, are very much universal. I felt them deeply. I recommend this film highly.
Watch the trailer for Mother of George: