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Movie Review

Paternity is tested in ‘Mother’

Danai Gurira as a woman brought from Africa to the US by her restaurant owner husband.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Danai Gurira as a woman brought from Africa to the US by her restaurant owner husband.

Sometimes it takes outsiders to point out truths about society at large, especially when it comes to that fundamental social unit, the family. In Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,” a woman in a Nigerian community in Brooklyn is presented with a drastic alternative when she fails to bear a child. Not your everyday dilemma, but as depicted in this lushly detailed and passionately performed melodrama, the mores and traditions of this sequestered, seldom depicted group take on a broader relevance.

Dosunmu brings the Brooklyn Nigerian community to life from the start with a gorgeously shot wedding scene in which clothes, faces, even walls radiate with vibrant, saturated colors that are nearly palpable. (Bradford Young won best cinematography at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.) The happy bride Adenike (Danai Gurira) had been brought from Africa to the United States by her husband, Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), a stolid restaurant owner, and she beams with gratification and anticipation.

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But in the midst of the festivities, disquieting exchanges occur. Guests chide Ayodele's free-spirited younger brother Biyi (Tony Okungbowa) for his late nights and failure to settle down. Adenike's hip friend Sade (Yaya Alafia) rolls her eyes at the traditional customs and rigid gender roles. And everyone’s emphasis on Adenike bearing a child as soon as possible, with Ayodele's mother, Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi), the most insistent, does not bode well. Ma Ayo already has a name picked out for her future grandson — George, after her late husband.

Months later, despite foul-tasting teas brewed by her mother-in-law and primitive-looking fertility belts around her waist, Adenike still hasn’t conceived. She takes the blame, though it’s clear that Ayodele is the problem, and Ma Ayo bruits the possibility that Ayodele might take another wife according to Nigerian custom. Driven to despair, Adenike confronts Ayo, who tells her, “You know what to do.”

So she does, and the suggestion, though appalling, makes a ruthless kind of sense. Dosunmu has drawn the viewer into this world with his lush images and intimate compositions, backed by an intoxicating soundtrack by Philip Miller, and its values and expectations have grown familiar. But as duty and desire come into conflict, what once seemed nurturing turns claustrophobic, leading to a resolution with the universal resonance of an Old Testament tale or a Greek tragedy. It’s the family in extremis, at its worst and best.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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