By Angleo Muredda
“I think she’s been working for too long now,” a man deadpans about his bone-tired mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) late in Jenna Cato Bass’s absorbing thriller Mlungu Wam, an allegory about how the white supremacist violence of apartheid-era South Africa reverberates into the future as demons for the children and grandchildren of Black domestic labourers to exorcise. This cerebral horror film about a family swallowed whole by its matriarch’s decades of devoted service to a vampiric white dame—the eponymous, largely unseen “Good Madam”—is admittedly bigger on atmosphere and allusions to sources as disparate as Black Girl, To Sleep with Anger, and the Book of the Dead than it is on scares. Yet the eerie soundscape and elliptical montages of Mavis’ full-throttle cleanings and dustings of her madam’s colonial mansion, pounding her body into the floors as she scrubs unseen dirt out of it, have an undeniably visceral charge.
It’s debatable whether the film, co-written by Bass and Babalwa Baartman, turns out to be much more than the sum of its many postcolonial Gothic tropes, from unsettled terrain to generational trauma to spirit possessions; by the end, these have really stacked up, to the detriment of the previously tighter focus on characterization. There’s also a blitheness to the filmmaker’s evocation of the visual signifiers of slavery and apartheid when the house’s pent-up violence is released upon Mavis’ children, which doesn’t inspire the most generous reading of the somewhat vague allegory. Before it leaks some of its slow-burn tension, though, Mlungu Wam is compelling stuff.