African–born filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George takes place in Brooklyn, but it might as well be set on another continent—or even planet. The story of a Nigerian couple trying to conceive a baby in New York, this visually evocative feature appropriates the intricately patterned textiles, blue and gold colors, and elaborate customs of their traditional Nigerian culture, all in a way that mirrors the characters’ sense of dislocation. “We wanted a little sci-fi feel,” says director of photography Bradford Young, who won the best cinematography prize at Sundance for his work on both Mother of George and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
“I wanted to show a New York completely different from what you usually see,” says Dosunmu, an émigré himself, who moved to the city from Nigeria 18 years ago. “What I really love about it is that many immigrants have their own oases in this metropolis. When you walk down certain streets in Queens or Brooklyn, you could be in Kingston or Dakar.”
Mother of George goes a step further. The film observes devoted wife Adenike (Danai Gurira) in detailed close-ups and lit by ominous fluorescent lights, while her urban background melts away behind her in a dark impressionist blur. As she ventures out across Brooklyn, seeking fertility help from in-laws, friends, medicine men, and doctors, the landscape is a strange, sometimes otherworldly mix of the mythic and postmodern.
Reflecting both a sense of claustrophobia and “the dilemmas of displacement,” explains Dosunmu, the camera follows Adenike in this way in order to make “the audience feel just like her,” he says. “We want to see more, but we can’t, and that’s how she feels: She wants more clarity, but she doesn’t have the solution.”
Bradford Young, who also shot Dosunmu’s Restless City, another film about the African immigrant experience, puts it this way: “New York is an intense city. People are fighting not to be marginalized. And for those who come in from another country—or I came here from the South—our life is trying to be seen,” he says. “And that’s why we shot with such a shallow depth of field. Because this is what Mother of George is really about: See these people that you see every day that you never pay attention to? Forget all that stuff around them: We’re actually going to pluck that person out—the man who sells those nuts on Broadway—and make you see who they are and what they’re about.
“That’s a lot to take on with a lens,” Young continues. “To elevate someone’s concept of another human being by making that focus so resolved that you have to see them.”
Mother of George also employs an impressive color palette. Not only are fabrics, lights, and pieces of the set colored shades of blue—a blue wall, for instance, figures prominently in one pivotal scene—but in post-production, the filmmakers dialed up the indigo. Dosunmu says the colors are derived from African deities. Blue, he says, “is about Yemoja, the god of fertility.”
For Young, indigo has other resonances. “Indigo is such an African thing, because it’s in a lot of our textiles, and a lot of the early plantations in South Carolina were indigo plantations, so our relationship to that material is so intimate and so personal, with ties to Africa and America, and America back to Africa,” he says. “It’s really a pan-African color.”
Crafting such an intensely visual film wasn’t just a result of Dosunmu’s photography background—he’s shot fashion spreads for Fader Magazine, among others—but part of grander ambitions.
For one, he hopes to recreate the type of oral storytelling tradition from his homeland through cinematic means. “When I sit down to hear a story from my grandmother, it’s broken down into a song, a poem, a dance—and I wanted to find a way to have my narratives do that,” he says. Though Mother of George flows sensuously, like a dream, rather than feeling fragmented, there are scenes of dance, music, and beautifully poetic images interspersed throughout, which he hopes replicates the feel of a tale told by an African griot.
Dosunmu also wants to make films that are universal. “I try to work everything out visually at first, because I want my movies to be seen in any part of the world,” he says. “I don’t want to lose anything in translation.”