The terror in Jenna Cato Bass’s latest film Mlungu Wam, or Good Madam when loosely translated from Xhosa to English, takes its time to build. While there are some eerie touchstones early on, Bass ensures one is deeply invested in the characters before the walls begin closing in on them.
Forced to leave her grandmother’s home after her death, due to the claustrophobic nature of the family’s patriarchal structure, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) have no choice but to move in with her estranged mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe). Working as a live-in maid in the wealthy (i.e. all-white) suburbs of Cape Town, Mavis has dedicated much of her life to serving the mysterious home owner Diane (Jennifer Boraine).
Even now when Diane’s ailing health keeps her confined to her room, which only Mavis is allowed to enter, Tsidi’s mother has kept the sprawling house in the same immaculate condition as if her “Madam” was still roaming about freely. While Mavis takes pride in her role, even if it has come at a great personal sacrifice, including missing her own mother’s funeral, the home has never sat right with Tsidi. Unable to explain the eerie vibes the house gives off all these years later, Tsidi believes it is time for her mother quit her job. Mavis is unwilling to take this action as the Madam’s home is the only place she – and now Tsidi – have.
Using domestic servitude as an entry point into the lingering impact of the apartheid-era, Bass constructs a taut and layered horror film. Keeping the film grounded in the weight of history, Mlungu Wam manages to unsettle viewers even before the actual scares starts. Juxtaposing the African art that adorns the house like trophies with the smiling portrait of Diane and her family, which offers the only glimpse at the madam for the bulk of the film, the sense that the house is stuck in the apartheid era is always present. This fact hits home when Bass’ camera lingers over the childhood artwork of Tsidi’s brother Stuart (Sanda Shandu) and one realizes that he is the only person of colour in them.
Prior to Stuart even appearing in the latter section of the film, one feels the complicated tension that exists between him and Tsidi. Unlike his sister, Stuart had the privilege of being raised alongside Diane’s own children. While Mavis merely wanted to give him an opportunity at a better life, it is not lost on her that many viewed it as her giving up her son to the white family.
The legacy of Black people giving up their bodies and offspring to white rule is further emphasized when Bass’s film cranks up the terror. It is here where servitude becomes a non-negotiable lifetime contract. One where the chimes of a service bell carries a hypnotic lure that is frightening to observe. Unlike recent horror films that touch on race, the white gaze is often physically absent in Mlungu Wam but its oppressive and suffocating power, Tsidi is literally gasping for air at one point, is always felt.
As Tsidi is terrorized and slowly transformed by the house, the atmosphere of Bass’ film becomes more beguiling. Feeling closer in spirit to a film like His House rather than Get Out, the film is most effective when lines between dream and reality are blurred. It is in these sequences when one truly feels the paranoia that Tsidi experiences, which helps to make the sparse but potent scenes of body horror pop.
While using domestic service as the focal point of the terror and central ideas is wise, the structure of the narrative does back Bass into a bit of a corner by the last act. As things go off the rails for Tsidi, and the overall message is hammered home, one is always aware of how tough the bonds of oppression are to break. Which makes for a rather messy ending, where the link to whiteness is still deem crucial, neither satisfying from a horror nor social commentary perspective.
Its murky and problematic finale aside, Mlungu Wam is a chilling psychological horror that succeeds in getting one to reflect on the legacy of apartheid that still reverberates today.