TIFF 2021: ‘Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)’ Is an Unnerving Horror About Racial Trauma

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Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)

The trauma of segregation runs deep in the veins of Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), a South African horror film directed by Jenna Cato Bass that screened in the Platform section of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

After her grandmother’s death (the woman who raised her), Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) is forced to leave her house. She and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) have no other choice but to move into the large house where Tsidi’s estranged mother, Mavis (Noshipho Mtebe), has lived and worked as a servant for decades. The house in question belongs to a mysterious elderly White woman referred to as “Madam.” The house has a strict set of rules: Don’t run, don’t touch the fridge, don’t use the pool, and, most importantly, don’t enter Madam’s room.  

As Tsidi struggles to settle in, memories of her childhood growing up in the house spring to mind, and eerie apparitions start to haunt her. She has disturbing nightmares and sees the dead family dog roaming the house. To make matters worse, her relationship with Mavis is deeply fractured, and Winnie’s obstinate attitude becomes a source of worry. The film presents Tsidi as a woman who’s losing sight of reality, which keeps you on your toes. What is real in this creepy house?

Madam is almost like a ghost whose simple mention changes the atmosphere. We see her face all over photos throughout the house, but she never actually leaves her room which is framed in eerie shots, as if even the cameraman was afraid to go inside. The most upsetting concern for Tsidi is how much devotion her mother has for Madam and her work as a domestic worker. Mavis insists that if something were to happen to Madam, they would have nowhere else to go—they depend on her and must do her bidding to maintain order. The younger Tsidi is constantly trying to change old Mavis’s mind and make her realize that independence from White power is possible. This devotion works as a metaphor for the deep trauma lingering from the Apartheid era and the disparity of ideas between generations resulting from oppression. 

Good Madam uses the haunted house concept to cause dread, and the production design work of Bass and Babalwa Baartman is an effective tool to achieve it. The house is full of African art and memorabilia that evoke colonialism. The halls create discomfort, and the arrangement of the rooms is used to induce confusion, particularly when eerie visions appear.

The sound is a highlight of the film. Whenever someone is working on a domestic chore, sound designers Lubabalo Bozo and Abongwe Xatyisiwe make sure you feel the strain of it in your bones. The sound of black hands scrubbing floors or washing dishes is amplified to terrifying levels. Combined with the extreme framing of the shots, Jenna Cato Bass uses these domestic rituals to upset, delve deeper into the segregation trauma, and prepare the big  revelation of the third act.

The comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out are hard to ignore. Good Madam creates an atmosphere of horror to talk about the legacy of racism and portray the unrest of a Black woman entrapped in a White environment. It also uses a hypnosis-type trope as a device to stick the landing. However, it constantly struggles with its slow pace, and its finale, although highly satisfying at the moment of watching, loses impact as time goes by. The few jump scares are tremendous, though, and I wished the film had more of them. 

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) is a psychological affair that keeps you guessing about the authenticity of Tsidi’s experience while exploring the lasting brunt of oppression. It unnerves through effective character development brought to life by an outstanding performance from Chumisa Cosa.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) was screened as part of the Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF 2021.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) is a psychological affair that keeps you guessing about the authenticity of Tsidi’s experience while exploring the lasting brunt of oppression. It unnerves through effective character development brought to life by an outstanding performance from Chumisa Cosa.