“Bush Mama” Critiques Surveillance and American Racism

Colgate’s Friday Night Film Series presented what The New Yorker deemed a “landmark of the New Hollywood-era” in Golden Auditorium on Friday, October 12. “Bush Mama” was directed, produced and edited by Haile Gerima as his thesis film for the University of California, Los Angeles. Blending narrative fiction, documentary and surrealist styles in a 97-minute run-time, Gerima created a masterpiece with unwavering honesty and introspection. Opening with actual documentary footage of Gerima and his cinematographer being harassed by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, “Bush Mama” offers an unflinching critique of the surveillance states and systemic racism in America. The film’s message remains prevalent as the struggle against oppression of the black community continues.

Gerima stages the film through the perspective of Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), who acts as the story’s protagonist. Gerima explores Watts, California through the eyes of Dorothy, a pregnant welfare recipient trying to raise her daughter, Luann (Susan Williams), alone while her Vietnam War veteran husband, T.C. (Johnny Weathers), is incarcerated. The film follows Dorothy’s political awakening, initially portraying her as someone apathetic to African Americans’ plight for equality. While at first she is tired and focused on her next drink, Dorothy later becomes enlightened to the danger of being black in America.

After she witnesses multiple deaths of black people at the hands of cops, undergoes an abortion against her will and views the attempted rape of her 12-year-old daughter at the hands of a cop, Dorothy realizes that change must not just be hoped for, but demanded. Throughout the movie, T.C. sends Dorothy letters declaring the need for change, explaining how America does not care about black people. In the final scene, Dorothy writes back, acknowledging that T.C. had been wrongly incarcerated. She also decides to no longer wear a wig, now choosing to proudly show her natural hair. In the final scene, Gerima masterfully completed Dorothy’s character arc from a socially indifferent person to one who is politically awakened.

The film’s poignant insight into the daily life of a female African American welfare recipient in the late 1970s remains resonant to a 2018 audience due to the U.S.’s current political climate, while it simultaneously feels period appropriate with black-and-white filming and surreal footage. Complexities of character were showcased through Angi (Renna Kraft), the teenage neighbor of Dorothy who seeks to awaken her and Lu- ann to the injustices of America. While Angi’s mother, Molly (Cora Lee Day), seeks to support Dorothy’s complacency, Angi refuses to accept that the hand they were dealt by society is as good as it will ever be and fights for the betterment of her society.

“Bush Mama” is truly a masterpiece of social commentary and has triumphantly survived the passage of time. With an incredible score and unforgettable scenes, it is a movie that should be seen in order to learn as well as to appreciate.

Contact Ignacio Villar at [email protected].