In the 1976 film Bush Mama, Ethiopian director Haile Gerima explores the struggles and oppression that African-Americans face living in the ghettos of Southern California. Centered on a black female welfare-recipient and her broken family living in the Watts neighborhood, the film offers a raw perspective not typically glimpsed among the tendency of mainstream narratives to leave questions of class, race and gender inequalities unaddressed. By daring to raise these issues, Bush Mama functions as a powerful polemic, challenging the values of some of the dominant ideologies perpetuated by white hetero-normative standards. As the film progresses and the audience comes to understand the hopelessness of the poor black experience as it is presented here, the film reveals a view of structural and institutional oppression by state powers that becomes increasingly apparent as Dorothy, pregnant and poor at the start of the film, begins an even greater descent that ends with her in jail for murdering a police officer who attempted to rape her daughter.
Arriving in the second half of the 1970s, Bush Mama stands as an oppositional force to the dominant narrative ideology that pushes forth negative views of black women, the black women on welfare in particular. Furthermore, the film not only successfully deconstructs such normalized beliefs as white dominance as a naturally occurring phenomenon and patriarchy as the accepted hierarchy, but also the very notion that every individual controls their own destiny.
Rather than following a more common cinematic strategy of emphasizing the power, or lack thereof, of the individual, Bush Mama utilizes a few select characters as a means of standing in for the collective mass of blacks in Watts. “Individual” is a term used negatively by African-American studies researcher Wahneema Lubiano, who argues that, “individuals are always wrapped in larger world narrative contexts. The problem with constructions of mythic individualism is that their ties to power go unnoted.” This is important to consider in relation to the film because Dorothy’s narrative trajectory does not follow the path that most narratives (as defined by Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory) take of equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium (restored). Instead, from start to finish Dorothy is trapped in a world where moments of peace are rare amidst a constant struggle to keep afloat in a dire economic situation. She is not alone in this struggle, as the film shows many blacks (both female and male) experiencing the similar problems of waiting in the unemployment line, living through poverty and being harassed by police. This stands in stark contrast to the tendency of mainstream narratives to offer audiences exposition, conflict, closure and other means of aligning the story up with the audience’s ideological expectations. Instead, Bush Mama’s path is one of conflict, conflict, and more conflict, presented matter-of-factly and never in a typically melodramatic fashion.
Where a mainstream narrative might suggest that Dorothy’s position in the world is the result of her being born into it, or that she had choices that dictated her status in life, Bush Mama acknowledges that the reality is much more complicated. Delivering her final monologue after killing the police officer who tried to rape her daughter, she admits that she always felt that she was to blame for her position in life, but comes to the sober conclusion that it was where she was born that caused this, as the dominant society constructed a social role for her that placed her in an economically hopeless situation with no room to climb out of it. The tragic paradox lies in the fact that she would not have been eligible for welfare unless she aborted the pregnancy. If she does not abort the baby, she does not receive the welfare, but if she tries to get a job, she remains in the unemployment line until potential employers inevitably reject her. These structural barriers remain in place to keep her attached to a social role that subjugates black women.
The mainstream narrative understanding of black female welfare-recipient is one that finds black women and welfare-recipient as synonymous, perpetuating a negative stereotype that inscribes these black women as threats to the health of the nation. When Dorothy resists the pressures of the institutions and keeps her baby, later defending her daughter from being raped by killing the cop, she is beaten until she miscarries, and then imprisoned. Skillfully peeling back the layers that reveal the truth behind these codes and conventions, Gerima takes the blame away from Dorothy, arguing that she is allowed no real agency throughout the film. The only time she enacts agency, she is rejected for employment and is cut off from welfare. Gerima positions her as a victim to the structures in place, not her own decisions.
On narratives, Lubiano says that they “are the means by which sense is made in and of the world; they also provide that means by which those who hold power […] make available particular narratives and not others. In turn, such consistently reinforced presences reproduce the world in particular ways…” Most mainstream narratives unconsciously assume white dominance over blacks, often not questioning the power relations that led to this structural inequality. Bush Mama checks these notions by illustrating white violence as a power that aggressively oppresses black insubordination. Dorothy’s boyfriend T.C. is wrongfully arrested and jailed, while a welfare officer pushes around Dorothy and her daughter is almost raped by a police officer. In all these situations, the skin color of the government workers in the film is less important than the fact that they are simply government workers. There are few white people in the film, other than those in the governmental position, but this is not to suggest that the film plays to the binary of white vs. black. One of the black characters of the film says that the “white man” never messed with him; with another arguing “It’s the niggers that have gone crazy.” This type of self-blame stems from the fact that there are no whites in their community and thus they cannot place the blame on a tangible person but rather on the institutions that keep blacks trapped. But what these characters fail to realize is that while it might not be a white person causing them harm, it is the white hetero-normative codes and conventions in place by a dominant white majority that have structurally put blacks in an inferior economic position. Capitalism, by definition, requires there be classes, and it just so happens that blacks are put in the lower class due to the dominant institutions situating them there. By exploring these themes, Bush Mama tells audiences what the typical Hollywood narratives do not, revealing how this subjugation has come to place as well as the reasons why.
In the majority of modern societies and in the narratives they hold, men are positioned not only as the leaders of the family but also the agent that keeps societies together. Bush Mama attempts to reverse these notions by presenting the black female as the strong center of the family, as T.C. states in the film that without the black woman, there would no longer be the black race due to what he sees as “the holocaust of slavery.” This stands in sharp contrast to what dominant narratives say about black women and black female welfare-recipients. Writing on the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy, Lubiano says that the black female welfare-recipient is perceived by the masses as, “the agent of destruction, the creator of the pathological, black, urban, poor family from which all ills flow; a monster creating crack dealers, addicts, muggers, and rapists—men who become those things because of being immersed in her culture of poverty”. Simply by being black females who happen to be receiving welfare, they are demonized and seen as responsible for being a threat to the stability of black men and families. What Bush Mama reveals in its narrative is that the supposed “patriarch” of this family (T.C.) is incarcerated wrongfully by the very state that he served twice in the military (after not being able to find a job). Even after he is finally able to get a job, he is jailed the next day for a crime he didn’t commit. With this situation forced upon her, Dorothy is hit with a chain reaction that has her being a pregnant, unemployed, single mother. By denaturalizing both patriarchy and individualism, Bush Mama allows one to trace back the causes of Dorothy’s downward spiral (and that of the poor black population at large) back to structural forces in place by a government that acts to codify notions of white dominance.
By having blacks blame themselves, many do not comprehend whom to blame for their problems. Some like the character of “Prince”, a poor mentally unstable man, live in a deluded fantasy where they envision riches, while others become militant and recognize the need for “calculation and plan” amongst a black collective. These speeches are the most inspirational in the film, affirming the Civil Rights ideas of nonviolent institutional change as not simply a white/black dichotomy but a struggle between those in power and those who have been structurally calculated to not have any. This tension boils over in Bush Mama as Dorothy violently explodes in resistance to the government, although she ends up losing by being jailed, as the dominant powers remain in control. The victory is in her realization that she is not to blame for her position in life, and that by removing the wig she wore to conform to white conceptions of femininity, she is getting closer to the truth, no matter how unfortunate or disturbing that truth is. The stark imagery of her on screen without the big black wig she wore the entire film reveals a worn down and vulnerable portrait of her struggle, as her veil of complacency has been lifted. She may be in jail for her resistance, but she’s no longer playing by the rules of a society she does not feel belonging in. Only after recognition of this truth is there the potential to get within that structure and try to change it.
It is exactly this kind of hope and effort that made the Presidency of Barack Obama possible in the 2008 election. One wonders, however, whether the election of one man really stands as proof that institutional change is truly possible. Nonetheless, Bush Mama resonates as a film that fought against the grains of dominant ideology and deconstructed naturalized notions of modern American gender, race, and class relations. The few who have seen this obscure film come out having understood just why people are where they are and for what reason. But contrary to depictions by Hollywood, the truth presented here is not convenient or comfortable, but it’s one step closer to understanding how things really work.