If you’ve watched the trailer for Jenna Bass’ South African horror film, “Good Madam,” you may think you’ve seen a movie like this before. You haven’t. What may feel familiar are the realities that parallel yours, or, at least, are recognizable, in a story about a Black single mother forced to move in with her own mother from whom she’s estranged. She’s a live-in domestic worker caring obsessively for her white madam in a wealthy Cape Town suburb. Of course, there’s more simmering underneath the surface. A metaphor for the enduring effects of colonialism in contemporary South Africa, it’s social commentary tucked inside what is effectively a haunted house movie.
Real and fictional narratives of women of color domestic workers employed by white families, and the deeply personal yet emotionally ambiguous relationship that develops between domestic worker and woman of the house, abound. Rooted in inequality, with historical links to, in this case, Apartheid (or slavery in much of the west), this interracial entanglement has survived well into the 21st century. “Good Madam” handles it as a matter of fact. From the title to the tone, this thorny genre exercise presents itself as a subtle social drama, until it becomes a film about Egyptian curses, sacrifices, and complex rituals involved in preparing for the afterlife.
From a screenplay that makes observations about post-apartheid South Africa and the complexities of a family torn apart by that system of oppression, “Good Madam’s” plot is straightforward: Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), along with her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), show up unexpectedly at the home where Tsidi’s alienated mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), works as a domestic. It’s the same house Tsidi spent much time in while growing up, and so she already knows what awaits them: specters real and imagined.
For example, Mavis, in a somnambulistic state, diligently cleans in the dark, far too late into the night to be productive. Additionally, living in the madam’s house means adhering to certain strict rules, as Tsidi explains to Winnie; most importantly, under no circumstances enter the madam’s room. Its entryway is ominously lit and framed from the outset, and Bass makes it clear that an unknown though implied peril looms, underscored by the film’s haunting score, and sound design (everyday sounds are rendered foreboding), startling and stark cinematography, as well as plenty of foreshadowing.
In fact, one of “Good Madam’s” flaws is that it foreshadows a bit too much in its script, for which the film’s entire ensemble cast receives co-writing credit. The dialogue is mostly improvised, the result of successful workshopping. There’s probably a dissertation to be written about the film’s use of language (especially as it relates to class) — primarily Xhosa with sprinkles of British-accented English.
“So we should pretend not to be here even though we are,” a prepubescent Winnie astutely if innocently inquires of her mother. Naturally, the most important rule is broken, courtesy of Tsidi, who believes her mother’s fanatical attention to her employer is all-too reminiscent of the master-maid relationship under apartheid. As the country’s harsh, institutionalized system of racial segregation ended in the early 1990s, Mavis would have lived a significant portion of her life under it; Tsidi did not.
She eventually enters the room of the madam (Jennifer Boraine), who, until then, is depicted as more of an apparition; a ghostly, unfriendly force, visible primarily in family photos stationed around the house. And for her disobedience, the spirits punish Tsidi in return.
But it’s clear that there’s something sinister driving Mavis’ uncanny unwavering devotion to her catatonic madam, an old woman she calls Diane. And the build-up — presented as a generational family soap opera incorporating flashbacks revealing the conflict that disrupted the household — is delicious in the way patient horror movie fans relish their servings. It’s still a horror film so it comes with some of the usual tropes of the genre, and, going in, one suspects that there’s more than meets the eye to this otherwise domestic chamber drama. But Bass takes her time getting to the climactic big reveal.
Set in a single location, “Good Madam” is more of a slow burn with the occasional jump-scare. Shots are carefully composed: tight close-ups of Mavis’ aging bare hands as she incessantly scrubs almost every part of the house and what’s inside it; repeated framing of various seemingly random objects, including a multitude of masks, old and recent pictures of the white family Mavis has worked for, and of Mavis herself. It’s visual cataloging that indicates a lengthy employer-employee relationship, especially with the madam’s adult children (an unseen Ross and Grant) whom the film wants the audience to assume Mavis may have once nurtured as her own.
Bass, a white South African, throws in a touch of local flavor with the washing of a dead goat’s head. The practice may seem macabre to those not acquainted with the practice of eating absolutely every piece of an animal you slaughter, but it’s normal in many African cultures. And perhaps, in “Good Madam,” it’s an allegorical read on class and race tensions in contemporary South Africa.
But that’s the extent of the film’s gore. Bass insists on traumatizing the audience psychologically, but with a payoff, even if it’s slightly underwhelming. The first hour’s intimate focus on familial strain juxtaposed against an off-kilter master-servant relationship shifts in the final act of this 90-minute jaunt, to a more conventional — and less interesting — horror movie about ancient curses, more in line with superficial fare like “The Mummy” (1999) than a film it’s arguably influenced by, in “Get Out” (2017).
Shifting from predictable (the tired, but recognizable mammy stereotype) to bewildering (what purpose did the canine apparition serve?), meditative (Tsidi unpacking repressed memories) to unhinged (that toothbrush scene), artful (equating the life of a Black domestic worker to a haunted house) to unwieldy (an insane climax), this genre-twister’s attempts to link art house and horror genre tropes aren’t always successful. But what especially worked, and should be universally resonant, is the unrelenting unease that pervades the film which mirrors real-life tensions that, in part, define what it’s like to be Black (and a woman) in predominantly white supposedly liberal spaces.
And for her part, Tsidi isn’t exactly a likable heroine. Chumisa Cosa’s convincing performance as both a mother fiercely protective of her own daughter from colonial trappings, and as a daughter of an estranged mother she simultaneously resents and sympathizes with, affords the actress a broad palette of primarily negative emotional depths to plunge.
Opposite Nosipho Mtebe’s eerily forever unfazed Mavis, the pair sets up a compelling dynamic. Bass ensures that the generational differences between these women come through loud and clear and, indeed, it is their relationship that propels the narrative.
Ultimately, “Good Madam’s” strengths lie in its mirroring of very present fears and realities; things that are indeed possible, as opposed to murderous dolls or demon-possessed children. Here, our fears are when we have to contend with questions about what it means when members of your own family feel like total strangers. Also, what happens when, as a mother, your socio-economic options are reduced to virtual nil? What does it mean to live in a country, on a continent, whose recent memories are steeped in colonization that apparently ended, but, in reality, seems to have only morphed? Why do some still hold a reverence for the perpetrators of real-life horrors like apartheid? These are scenarios and fears we can readily grasp, even if they aren’t our own specific experiences.
Operating under horror movie conventions, “Good Madam” simply ups the ante: a mother literally sacrifices her body and soul for her children, a metaphor for the willing participation in the continuation of a bloody historical heritage. It’s a semi-successful blending of the known familiar with the unknown fantastical with occasionally chilling results.
Jenna Bass’ TIFF 2021 selection launches exclusively on Shudder Thursday, July 14.
Abigail Arunga is a writer, author, and columnist based in Nairobi, Kenya. If she had more energy, there would be more books, but currently, naps and nice restaurants take precedence.