I’m looking forward to a future in which we are still talking about this movie, because we love it, and also because we can’t agree on how to categorize it. (Some of the people who made it have called it a psychological thriller, and the distributor has called it a horror satire. For me, neither of those really capture it.) Like two of its mothers in the horror genre, Rosemary’s Baby and Get Out, Good Madam will be discussed for years to come. In light of that, I’m going to start my campaign now to make it one of those unusual movies that are known by their original, non-English title, like Diabolique, Häxan and Tenebre. The original title for Good Madam is Mlungu Wam, a phrase from isiXhosa, the language in which most of the movie’s dialogue is spoken. Not that Good Madam is a bad title by any means, just that Mlungu Wam is better.
In a palatial house in a gated community in the all-white suburbs of Cape Town in South Africa, two elderly women live together. Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has been Diane’s live-in maid for decades: raising Diane’s kids (they have since moved overseas), cooking, cleaning, waiting on Diane as she became a shut-in. Even thirty years after the end of apartheid, Mavis’ life as a domestic worker still bears the marks of that history. She seemingly exists only to serve one white woman who never comes out of her room. She’s never heard speaking. The only sign of life coming from Diane’s room is the ringing of a bell whenever she has a need. Mavis grew up speaking isiXhosa but often uses English in relation to Diane, whom she calls “Good Madam.” Meanwhile, “Mlungu Wam” is an expression in South Africa that colloquially means “my employer,” but its literal meaning is “my white person.” These two layers of meaning go perfectly with the story this movie is telling: it’s a story about work, but also about racism, a story crafted to speak particularly to the realities of South Africa.
When Mavis’ daughter Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her granddaughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) come to stay with Mavis, they have to adjust to Mavis’ slavish existence. Tsidi explains to Winnie the rules: don’t run in the house, don’t touch the fridge, no using the pool alone, and stay out of Madam’s room. Winnie asks, “So we should pretend not to be here, even though we are?”
Of course to be in a place and be “there” without really being “there” is like being a ghost. And indeed Tsidi can’t properly inhabit Diane’s house. She’s unsettled as a mother, because her daughter Winnie is now going to school with rich white kids and speaking more English. She’s unsettled as a daughter, as she realizes her mother is ailing and has disturbing sleepwalking episodes where she continues to do housework even in her sleep. She’s unsettled on an even more visceral level, as she encounters strange manifestations (the ghost of Diane’s late dog) and ominous clues to something sinister going on (Egyptian hieroglyphs marked on a wall). Tsidi’s prayers to the ancestral spirit of her grandmother get more desperate and more anguished.
There’s some grim, ironic wit to Mlungu Wam, but I would never describe it as a “horror satire,” instead cautioning: there’s nothing funny about this movie. From the very first seconds, a disturbingly intense close-up of a drain, the movie creates a claustrophobic, skin-crawling atmosphere. The soundtrack by Simon Ratcliffe lends enormous support here. Ratcliffe, a sound engineer, has beautifully mixed the sound for the film, integrating sound effects with music featuring spooky female vocals, a horror staple, with a South African twist, as well as performances with the uhadi and umhrube (traditional South African instruments) by the performing artist Madosini.
Enhanced by this strong aesthetic, the scenes of the film’s first half evoke the feelings of being backed into a corner where your core values seem on the brink of terminal decay, and your resources for addressing the threat are painfully limited. For Tsidi, this desperate situation leads her to look for help from her half-brother, Gcinumzi (Sanda Shandu), who now goes by the name Stuart. Stuart was largely raised by Diane, and is accordingly more Westernized. In conversations with her daughter’s father, Tsidi derisively refers to Stuart as a “coconut,” that is, Black on the outside, white on the inside. Diane’s grip on Mavis’s life is so strong that perhaps only Stuart can intervene. But can Tsidi trust him? And will intervention come soon enough to keep Mavis, Tsidi, and their relationship from falling apart?
Jenna Cato Bass directed Mlungu Wam, also co-produced and co-wrote it, as well as serving as director of photography, as well as working on costume design and fabrication, and no doubt made other contributions. She’s literally a magician (having graduated from the Cape Town College of Magic before going to film school), and while it would be cute to describe Mlungu Wam as her greatest magic trick, it would be more true to say the magic trick was seeking authenticity by developing the screenplay from the ground up in concert with a team of collaborators, starting with her co-writer and co-producer Babalwa Baartman, and enabling the film to express multiple voices, particularly Black South African voices.
As a result, Mlungu Wam is easily the best movie I’ve ever seen with twelve screenwriters. (Note: because of WGA regulations, it’s actually impossible to credit a Hollywood film to more than three writers, so that’s part of the reason this kind of scenario is so rare!) Throughout her career, Jenna Cato Bass has experimented with a collaborative process (inspired by the methods of Mike Leigh) in which she starts with an outline, then casts the actors, then workshops the characters with the actors. So the story isn’t completely known until after this collective process, and improv exercises between the actors contribute to the dialogue. So in a substantive sense, Mlungu Wam is a story about a society told, not by a single individual who has to bear the full burden of representing the complexities of that society, but by a team of people who among them can offer a richer perspective on that society.
Having grown up on Carpenter and Cronenberg, I’m inclined to think of great horror movies as more likely to be the work of cowboys: highly individual and idiosyncratic lone creators. Mlungu Wam challenges that inclination. It feels steeped in horror traditions and yet piping hot and fresh. If you’ve ever seen a folk horror film, you’ll be on full alert as soon as those hieroglyphs appear, but the variations Mlungu Wam rings on these tropes are nicely domestic (the motion of scrubbing takes on more significance than you’d expect) and yet no less disturbing for that. And the dimension of psychological suspense in the film is very strong, driven by amazing performances from the three generations of mother, daughter and granddaughter.
Good Madam is now playing on Shudder.
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