Not only is Mother’s Milk a radical experiment in cinematic collaboration, it is also an invigorating and entrancing exploration of identity.
Mother’s Milk begins by letting us know that the following film is the result of cinematic collaboration. Creator and screenwriter Larry Powell took a script he originally wrote for the stage and transferred it into a film, inviting other artists to come aboard and direct various segments of it. Thus are the origins of Mother’s Milk. Throughout the film, the role of Sparrow, the main character, is played by nine different actors (J. Alphonse Nicholson, John Clarence Stewart, Devere Rogers, Siddiq Saunderson, Joshua Boone, Carter Redwood, Vladimir Versailles, W. Tré Davis, and Abraham Amkpa). We follow him as he goes on a quest to find his birth mother. Sparrow is Black, and one of the earliest scenes involves his white adopted parents giving him a letter from his birth mother, causing him to have an identity crisis. Who has he been his entire life? Is he missing a vital piece of his identity from having been raised by color-blind white parents? Sparrow’s odyssey is as much of him discovering himself as it is finding the mother who abandoned him.
Mother’s Milk also succeeds as a meditative portrayal of Black masculinity. The use of multiple actors to portray Sparrow helps make the film feel universal in its exploration of this idea as well as Black identity on the whole. Each actor brings their own interpretation of the character but they all feel like one person, no matter how different their physical appearances may be. Sparrow is trying to discover who he is, but he is also trying to assert himself in a white supremacist world that sees his masculinity as a threat. The film develops ways in which Sparrow is flawed, but overall it shows the psychic damage done to him by growing up in an overwhelmingly racist system, and by being raised by parents who tried to erase his identity to make him conform.
The film is dense with theatrically written dialogue, flashes of on-screen text, and a percussive score, and at times the narrative does feel as if it loses itself in metaphor and symbolism. One recurring motif is the literal milk of mothers. Sparrow is not only searching for family and identity, but also a maternal connection that he feels was sorely missing from his life. However, the metaphor extends further than that. Late in the film, in a moment of self-doubt and confusion, Sparrow becomes a cop. The police are also searching for mother’s milk to have for themselves, even if that means beating up women and taking their milk. It is at this point that the central metaphor becomes fuzzy, what is the meaning of cops taking milk? While Mother’s Milk can, at points like this one, become overly abstract, its allegory and poeticism are usually more thought-provoking than alienating.
Furthermore, while the emotive performances and poetic writing help make the film a unique watch, the heightened emotions of the screenplay can sometimes be overbearing. There is one long argument between Sparrow and a former partner that feels better suited to the bombastic feelings of the stage than a motion picture. Plus, the performances in this scene are dangerously close to being overblown. Fortunately, this histrionic argument is an outlier in the overall experience, and Mother’s Milk succeeds in its many scenes of political and social thoughtfulness.
Mother’s Milk can feel overwhelming and all over the place at times, especially with the changes in aesthetic that come with the film having eight co-directors. Thankfully, Scoma’s energetic editing and Powell’s emotional and reflective screenplay keep the film tight and engaging. It easily maneuvers between fury, heartache, and is most effective at hitting on the feeling of living in a world that was made to keep you down. Mother’s Milk is not the most accessible movie playing at SIFF this year, but certainly one of the most daring, intriguing, and not one to miss.
Mother’s Milk is available to watch digitally at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021. Click here to watch the film on the festival’s platform and here for our recommendations of films to watch at SIFF.
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