Spawned from a story playwright-turned-screenwriter Darci Picoult heard while touring with her one-woman show, My Virginia, Mother of George starts with a framework expressly befitting director Andrew Dosumnu, who, like the family the movie examines, immigrated from Nigeria to New York. The film, which is beautiful, poetic, and hard-hitting without the use of excessive force, and deeply layered with evolving and regional nuances of feminine experience, revolves around Adenike Balogun (Danai Gurira), a newlywed in constant conflict with the traditions of her heritage and the relative progress of modern, Western womanhood. Adenike’s husband, Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), a Brooklyn restaurateur whose business supports much of the local family (his brother, Biyi, played by Anthony Okungbowa, works there too), is a loving and largely non-oppressive man, but he’s even more shackled to his culture’s conservative thinking than his wife, which makes for serious tension once Adenike has trouble getting pregnant.
Immediately following Adenike and Ayodele’s color-rich nuptials, which open the film, Adenike is pressured into the role of a latter-day Marie Antoinette, whose bearing of a son and heir isn’t just the next step in her trajectory as a woman, but a responsibility for extending the family line that’s put entirely on her shoulders. “This baby belongs to us all,” says Ayodele’s mother, Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi), an ambiguous sage who provides holistic fertility aides while nursing that greater-good agenda (Ma Ayo also insists the baby be named George, after Ayodele’s late father). But it’s Adenike who must carry it, and when 18 months pass without so much as a missed period, it’s she who receives blame, particularly from her own mother via phone. Despite urgings from Biyi’s liberal girlfriend, Sade (a superb Yaya Alafia), Adenike can’t consult a professional doctor, as it would be both an act of indigenous defiance and an insult to Ayodele, who surely can’t be the one whose biological shortcomings might be hindering conception.
All of this is breathtakingly mounted as a means of augmenting Adenike’s personal control, while rarely being anything less than a vibrant celebration of Nigerian culture. The heroine’s handmade clothing, fraught with dynamic patterns reflective of her homeland, becomes utterly essential to the movie’s atmosphere, and through intense close-ups of the fabric, Dosunmu pulls the viewer into the world he’s presenting—an urban jungle with formal echoes of a far-off place and the persistent clash of root identity and assimilation (additionally, there’s often chants and drumbeats paired with Adenike’s treks across lonely streets). Nothing about Dosumnu’s technique seems remotely arbitrary, and with the invaluable help of D.P. Bradford Young’s amazing photography, he may just double in visual language what Picoult provides with her script.
As Adenike’s journey progresses, with circumstances growing more taxing, complex, and potentially tragic, the imagery corresponds. This is a movie that cares greatly for its protagonist, right down to its compositions, which are graciously (though not entirely) averse to over-the-shoulder shots. Often, when Adenike finds herself arguing with another character, the camera fixes tight on her as opposed to cutting back and forth, so we can absorb the full weight of her emotional responses. And when she finally makes a pivotal choice that’s shocking, invigorating, fateful, and sad, Dosunmu is keen to frequently bisect her thereafter, without abandoning the textural and hue-heavy tone already established (for example, a clothesline that horizontally splits her face is soon draped with a bright towel, which ignites the scene with color). Interestingly, for as adamant as Adenike is about getting pregnant, it’s never quite clear if it’s a personal goal or merely one to appease the family, perhaps because no one ever truly asks for her thoughts on the matter. But, again, the camera is there for support, including with the ways in which it literally shifts focus. Mother of George has a consistent visual interest in exhibiting varying sharpness and also Adenike’s hands, and there’s one frame wherein all is out of focus save her half-closed fist. In a movie that’s ultimately about agency and what’s within a woman’s grasp, it’s the most meaningful shot.