Mother of George
Writer: Darci Picoult
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Review by Yvonne M. Jones
It seems unfair to describe Mother of George director Andrew Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult’s engrossing immigrant melodrama merely by its log line. Noting that the film features a young Nigerian wife driven to extremes by her inability to conceive is accurate. But it does little to convey the film’s lyrical power or sensuous charms.
Like a photo negative of the end of Jane Austen’s celebrated novels, Mother of George opens with a joyous Yoruba wedding that didn’t happen a moment too soon. Adenike (Zimbabwean- American actress and playwright Danai Gurira) is marrying serene restaurant owner Ayodele Balogun (Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankole). It’s an exuberant occasion underlined with a collective sense of relief that Ayodele has finally earned enough money to bring his Nigerian bride to Brooklyn.
Thirtysomething Adenike blushes like the young, tremulous bride she is. This is Brooklyn, but in Nigerian years she’s close to the tail end of her childbearing years and everyone knows it. Their wedding night still hours away, family and friends glitter in brightly patterned kabas, iros, geles, and agbadas while invoking the brood they expect the couple to quickly conceive. Adenike’s pushy new mother-in-law Ma Ayo (veteran Nollywood actress Bukky Ajayi) even goes so far as to name their first child George (and presume its gender) after her late husband. It’s a blessing that feels more like a curse a year later when Adenike’s stubborn womb remains empty.
It’s become a cliché for storytellers to insist their works are both culturally specific and universal. Still, Mother of George gives truth to the threadbare phrase. Adenike is not the first wife to struggle to balance societal expectations and familial obligations with a new country’s customs and her own ambitions. But in American cinema, her story feels uniquely, well, hers and multifaceted, at once old world Nigerian and new world Naija. Adenike’s new life is not one of eithers and ors, but ands.
She enjoys bringing Ayodele homemade multi-course Nigerian meals and refuses to trade her brightly patterned kaba for her best friend Sade’s (a soulful Yaya DaCosta) frisky see-through blouses. Yet she’s not above pressuring her husband to allow her to get a job (“I don’t want your money. I want my own.”) or seeking help from both a fertility specialist and a traditional Yoruba healer. She’s also not afraid to suggest the good-natured Ayodele curtail his mother’s meddling and refrain from trading her in for a second, perhaps more fertile wife.
As Adenike’s desperation becomes more pointed, even frantic, Mother of George’s pacing remains mannered and deliberate, taking its time to bring characters into focus within tightly framed shots, observing them through mirrors, peering slowly around corners, and hanging back almost shyly when they’re on the move, hearts and emotions racing. Adenike frets that she’s running out of time; Ayodele is adamant about not subjecting his manhood to any kind of doctor’s test. And the audience is given room to leisurely ponder every facet of her predicament.
She’s not the only one struggling. Biyi (Anthony Okungbowa, erstwhile The Ellen Show DJ), Ayodele’s impish younger brother, is also in Brooklyn thanks to his sibling’s largesse. He loves his family, but dodging their forceful mother and working long daily shifts in Ayodele’s restaurant is making him chafe.
When not working hard for her gold Amex card and being a true sister-friend to Adenike, Sade finds time to strike up an affair with Biyi. It’s a surprise when the new-fashioned Naija reluctantly agrees to keep the relationship secret because Biyi needs one thing his mother and brother can’t touch.
And Ayodele? The film suggests the would-be father of George would be fine “just” being a happily married man with a caring family, even one that didn’t include children.
Ayodele’s stubborn mother has a lower tech solution in mind for Adenike, one that’s unwelcome, but not unheard of. You almost feel it coming even if you don’t know there’s no true Yoruba word for uncle.
Adenike’s dilemma takes viewers for an impassioned ride, and the wounded grace of Gurira’s performance rings true from first scene to last. Classic and present-day African literature has danced over these themes before. But it’s jarring to see it unfurl within the contemporary context of the Brooklyn Bridge, Beyonce ballads, and the Barclays Center.
How far will Adenike go to bear a child? For a long time she’s not sure, and Dosunmu uses Mobolaji Dawodu’s resplendent costuming, Bradford Young’s justly acclaimed cinematography, and carefully considered set design to reflect Adenike’s state of flux. Viewers might not be aware that Mother of George’s vivid color palettes and lighting schemes often correspond to Yoruban gods and the indigo dye used in adire cloths of Nigeria’s Yoruba — and later cultivated by slaves throughout the diaspora. But it’s an affirming shout-out to those who do.
With any luck, Picoult’s screenplay won’t get lost within the seductive siren call of Dosunmu and Young’s accomplishments. Her script is lean without being sparse, its dialogue providing much of Mother of George’s seasoning. Still, Dosunmu’s inspired directorial choices and partnership with Young cook up a visual and aural feast that ensures not everything would be lost in translation if someone muted Picoult’s well-chosen words.