Over the decades, popular culture has created dominant narratives of the Dominican Republic that are most often synonymous with poverty, crime, or state violence. Mainstream media, from news outlets to entertainment, focus on the nation’s exploitative tourism circuit, which props itself up as a paradisiac Caribbean escape for able foreigners, or the country’s fraught relationship with identity, rampant sex work, and homophobia. Bantú Mama breaks free from these scripts, telling a story of the island’s largely afro-indigenous population, including its struggles, autonomous expression, and diasporic links. And on Saturday, Bantú Mama was honored with an NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding International Motion Picture," becoming the first Dominican film to win the prestigious award.
Directed by Ivan Herrera and written by partners Herrera and Clarisse Albrecht, Bantú Mama follows a French-Cameroonian woman named Emma (Albrecht) who evades prison after a drug bust in Santo Domingo and finds shelter with three semi-orphaned children living unsupervised. Emma, the protagonist, quickly assumes a maternal role for the resourceful and headstrong children, Tina (Scarlet Reyes), her scrappy brother, Shulo (Arturo Perez), and the youngest and doe-eyed of the three, Cuki (Euris Javiel).
"Bantú Mama breaks free from these scripts, telling a story of the island’s largely afro-indigenous population, including its struggles and autonomous expression."
It's a story about untraditional mothering, transformation, and the threads that bind the African diaspora together. In one scene, Emma and a Haitian hairstylist mention wanting to go to Africa for the first time. In another, she teaches Cuki about her Bantú heritage and that of the Maasai tribe. These respective interactions introduce both viewers and characters to vestiges of their shared negritude, while highlighting one of the film’s central themes of Black diasporic identity and the island’s relationship to the continent.
“It was important to portray this because we live in times where there are so many shades of diversity and sometimes who you are is obscured, depending on where you live, where you’re from, and where your parents originate,” Albrecht tells Refinery29 Somos. “Most of us are immigrants and come from a long journey that started by our ancestors. It’s important to pay tribute to them and to acknowledge our roots, a foundation that is often denied. It's important to portray how we are similar and how our differences don't change what binds us.”
The film world-premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival before going on to screen at festivals like BFI London Film Festival and Urbanworld. It picked up awards from the Durban Film Festival, Latino and Iberian Film Festival at Yale, 47/Festival de Huelva, Festival de Cine Fine Arts, Nova Frontier Film Festival, and Quibdó África Film Festival. As the official selection of the Dominican Republic for the 95th Academy Awards International Feature Film, Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY acquired and debuted the acclaimed feature on select screens before premiering it on Netflix in November 2022.
“We are honored to distribute the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar submission,” ARRAY president Tilane Jones said in a statement. “This deeply moving and vividly drawn drama, beautifully directed by Ivan Herrera and co-written with producer Clarisse Albrecht, is a bold vision that we’re thrilled to share with audiences.”
"It's important to portray how we are similar and how our differences don't change what binds us.”
Though set in one of the more threatening districts in El Capotillo, a Santo Domingo barrio unfavorably defined by criminal activity and the drug enterprise, Herrera takes a page from director hero Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and shines a cinematographic light on the dignity and brilliance of an oppressed community. “We really wanted to portray the Dominican Republic in a different aspect, especially El Capotillo, the bajo mundo as they call it, that has not been portrayed before, at least not with dignity and care,” Albrecht adds. “This poetry, this elegance, we wanted to put on screen and give proof of their existence. Of this kind of community, love, and care that is not typically shown in places like El Capotillo. Our focus was the humanity of this place and the wondrous people living in it.”
From El Capotillo, the film ends on the historic Gorée Island in Senegal, in front of the Atlantic with a pivot point of what were the slave-trading quarters. “It was essential to end the story where you had the house of the enslaved with the door of no return if we really want to change the narrative,” Albrecht explains. “It was really important to show we can use this symbol of a dark past, acknowledge it, and say that this no longer has to be a place of no return, but of righteous homecoming.”
“It was really important to show we can use this symbol of a dark past, acknowledge it, and say that this no longer has to be a place of no return, but of righteous homecoming.”
While Bantú Mama could have used more context on how Blackness is perceived and experienced in the Dominican Republic, it ultimately unfolds an unconventional story of home-going that simultaneously shares a new narrative of the Dominican Republic's bajo mundo and shatters a myth that perpetuates the U.S. and the general west as the north star for success and happiness.