Mlungu Wam [Good Madam] (2021)

Mlungu Wam
Director: Jenna Cato Bass
Writer: Babalwa Baartman, Jenna Cato Bass, Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Siya Sikawuti, Chris Gxalaba, Peggy Tunyiswa, Steve Larter
Cast: Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Siya Sikawuti, Chris Gxalaba, Peggy Tunyiswa
Part of: SLASH Filmfestival
Seen on: 27.9.2022
1-gif-review

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism, sexism

Plot:
Due to family trouble, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) has just lost her home and she and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) need a roof over their head on short notice. Begrudgingly, Tsidi goes to stay with her mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) who is a live-in maid at the home of a rich white woman whose health is in decline. Mavis has been working there for decades and Tsidi hated growing up in the house, feeling that the employers take advantage of Mavis. But needs must. Only Tsidi finds that there is something eerie going on at the house.

Good Madam gives us precise social analysis in a disquieting package that I found not only interesting regarding its content, but also cinematically very pleasing.

The film poster showing Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), her mouth covered by a white person's hand.

Good Madam manages to take on so many aspects of domestic workers/maids in South Africa and the many ways, we can see social (especially racial and gendered) hierarchies in that system, how they’re still so very baked in. The ways families are torn apart when the maids have to raise the white children and can’t take of their own, leaving scars over generations. How the white people appeal to a sense of family and caretaking of each other, and yet expect, demand and enforce the strictest hierarchies (something that is also what a lot of employers outside of this context do, by the way). How native languages disappear in favor of colonial languages. How white people lay claim to their Black workers even after hours, even after death. How Black people participate willingly in the oppression if they’re promised some kind of personal advantage.

It’s no wonder that Tsidi rebels against this, but she’s considered strange by everybody around it. And we see how quickly it happens that she adapts to it anyway. Because she has to to a certain extent, but also just from an automatism. There are two throw-away moments in the film that encapsulate so much of all of this: in both, Tsidi is standing in front of the house and the same jogger passes her. In the first scene, Tsidi is wearing pyjamas, and the jogger almost trips because she looks at her so much, seemingly scared. In the second scene, Tsidi is wearing a maid uniform, and the jogger simply waves and smiles. The only way Black people fit into this white suburban world is as servants.

Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) carrying a tray with tea.

But the film isn’t just a social essay and analysis, it is also a pretty unsettling film in its own right. Mostly thanks to the really outstanding cinematography that lingers on seemingly empty spaces, creating an ongoing sense of unease that there is something behind the obvious that we’re missing, something that we just aren’t seeing. (And there is.)

The cast, who get writing credits as well, are really great, too. Even though it takes a bit of time to put together how they all relate to each other, their feelings for each other are always perfectly clear. This gives this interesting film its emotional core and makes you root for Tsidi, Winnie and Mavis. Fortunately, the ending provides the necessary win.

Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) and Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) in Mavis' room.

Summarizing: powerful.

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