The title of this movie is Xhosa and translates as Good Madam, as the white madam is at the center of this film, a comatose woman being looked after by Mavis, the mother of Tisdi, this movie’s protagonist. As they live in the wealthy suburbs of Cape Town — yet always apart from the city — the darkness within the old woman’s home may engulf everything and everyone.
Directed by Jenna Cato Bass (who co-wrote the script with Babalwa Baartman), this movie may take place decades after the end of apartheid, but the shadow of the past looms large. Tisdi has been estranged from her mother, who has spent the majority of her life with the home of Madam — Diane — and even raised her son Stuart alongside the rich white children.
Only Mavis is allowed to enter the room of the dying woman — which reminds one of Burnt Offerings — while keeping the home immaculate, as if the lady of the home could rise at any moment and nothing has changed. Her sacrifices to her duty have even kept Mavis from going to the funeral of her mother.
Why are Mavis and Stuart so comfortable in this home of white privilege and Tsidi so haunted? Why was she rejected and her brother accepted and perhaps even adopted or co-opted? And why have we never seen Madam outside of photos from the past? And when Tisdi’s daughter Winnie been loved by Mavis so easily when a connection between mother and daughter has been such a trial?
As Americans, we may struggle to understand the complicated history of South Africa, but sadly, we all understand the struggles of racism and enduring horrible relationships that only have one worse thought: what if tomorrow is worse than the pain we have endured in the days before?
Mlungu Wam is at Fantastic Fest now. When it begins to stream, we will update this article.