‘George’ debuts Bradford Young retrospective at International House

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Do you appreciate stellar cinematography?  If you have seen the Oscar nominated “Selma” or J.R. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” you had an opportunity to savor the superb visual content of both films. Both were shot by the same man, Bradford Young.

Cinephiles were already familiar with Young’s expertise. In 2011, Young won the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinematography Award for U.S. Dramatic Films for “Pariah.” In 2013, Young won the same award for his collective work on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Mother of George.” Young has also applied his skill set to music videos and commercials.

Now, the Penn Humanities Council is curating a retrospective of Bradford Young films. It will kick off with the much acclaimed, “Mother of George.” Before the screening, Young will be part of a panel discussing his work.

“Mother of George” is a contemporary, cross-cultural drama. It is set in Brooklyn’s community of Yoruba immigrants from Nigeria.

Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé) and Adenike (Danai Gurira) are very much in love. In an opening vignette, the couple’s traditional Yoruba wedding ceremony is depicted in an extended sequence. The couple as well as the guests are all clad in brightly colored outfits, which distinguishes them from more muted American fashions.

The groom’s mother, Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi), has a clearly defined agenda. She wants the newly married couple to produce progeny. Ma Ayo isn’t subtle about it. In a wedding toast to the newlyweds, she exhorts, “Give me good kids!” She presumptuously pronounces that the couple’s still unconceived child will be a male and he will be named George. To augment her verbal pronouncement, Ma Ayo hands fertility beads to Adenike.

Ayodele and Adenike  are intent on having children and starting a family. Commencing on their first night of marriage, they get busy with the requisite amorous activities.

Ayodele continues as a hardworking restaurateur with a predominantly Yoruba clientele. Adenike is  a homebound seamstress, who discharges her domestic duties. One day, she goes shopping with her worldly friend, Sade (Yaya Alafia). The latter has eschewed Yoruba customs in favor of modern, American social values. It is a stark contrast to Adenike’s submission to prevailing Yoruba cultural attitudes and expectations.

Adenike begins drinking a special tea, which is designed to enhance the likelihood of pregnancy. However, after eighteen months, Adenike has still not become pregnant.

Ayodele is too proud to subject himself to a sperm count test. Moreover, he recoils at the expense of fertility treatment.

Ma Ayo repeatedly harangues Adenike about the fact that she has still not become pregnant. What can Adenike do to mollify her mother-in-law?  Will she resort to extreme measures?

The screenplay by American, Darci Picoult, provides an interesting perspective on a self-contained immigrant society and the lure of assimilation.  Nigerian director, Andrew Dosunmu, does an effective job of pacing the film and maintaining the narrative tension. He evokes naturalistic performances from the entire cast.

Zimbabwean actress, Danai Gurira, is best known for her recurring role as a sword-wielding zombie slayer on “The Walking Dead.” Here, she emerges as the film’s central character. Isaach De Bankolé  convincingly portrays the mild-mannered  restaurateur. As the mother-in-law, Bukky Ajayi captures the overbearing nature of her character.

From the opening wedding scene, Bradford Young demonstrates what makes his cinematography so well regarded. Young is a Louisville native, who moved to Chicago at age 15 to live with his father. He eventually attended Howard University, where he studied filmmaking. As a cinematographer, Young has a penchant for using available natural light. In this film, he manifests particular dexterity at celebrating the intense chromaticity of Yoruba fashions and the beautiful skin tones of a dark complexioned cast.

Young’s adroit cinematography is well complemented by the dazzling costume design by Mobolaji Dawodu and the musical score by Philip Miller.

Although it is a low budget affair, “Mother of George” is replete with interesting societal issues, resonant acting, and impressive technical values. It is a fitting introductory film for a retrospective series on the films of cinematographer, Bradford Young.

***1/2 R (for sexuality, some language and a disturbing image) 107 minutes

“Mother of George” will be shown on Wednesday, Jan. 21 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street). The event is free but registration is needed. To check on “walk-in guest” admission availability, check http://ihousephilly.org/calendar/mother-of-george

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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