Emma Hanson reviews Julian Henriques’ 1998 musical film, Babymother, and considers the reality of single Black motherhood against its often prejudiced on- and off-screen representation.
Hailed by the BFI as one of the top 10 Black British films thus far, Babymother is the 1998 brainchild of husband and wife duo; writer, Julien Henriques, and producer, Parminder Vir. In the making since 1993, Babymother, a Black feminist triumph of a film, was funded by the Arts Council of England to the tune of £2 million and released by Channel Four Films to mixed reviews, eventually garnering a nomination at the 1998 Dinard British Film Festival.
Featuring Black British acting favourites Caroline Chikezie (debut), Don Warrington, and Tameka Empson (of 3 Non-Blondes fame), Babymother is Henrique’s first feature length film and tells the story of hopeful reggae singer and (mostly) single mother of two, Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith). Set in the lively district of Harlesden, West London, there is no question as to the suitability of Henriques’ choice of location. Harlesden was famed in the 90s as a melting pot of Jamaican music spanning reggae, ragga, lovers rock, dancehall, drum n’ bass, and bashment, and is the perfect backdrop for Anita’s story.
The soundtrack, ‘Steppin’ Ina NW10′, provided by Superflex, plays as we are introduced to the main characters in the same energetic vein that is sustained throughout the musical. Yes, musical – and the first Black British one at that. The film gained Vir the notoriety to co-found the Cultural Diversity Network (CDN) in 2000 and achieve an admittedly surface-level diversity facelift for the UK film and television industry – noting that to this day, its bones remain white, male and middle class.
In the opening scene we meet Anita, female promoter, Bee (Diane Bailey) and Anita’s babyfather, Byron (Wil Johnson), who, in an entrance befitting Narcissus, we are introduced to through his reflection as he rehearses, “These Lips Don’t Lie” – a song that goes on to spur the seemingly irrevocable disruption of an already thorny relationship between baby mother and baby father. Anita delivers a freestyle strongly undergirded by an emotional truth that seems to indicate the misfortune of having had previous opportunities to develop the following thoughts and opinions:
‘Me want more than ya promises, me want your love, me want commitment, me want the best you have fi give me, me nah go lie to you, not deceiving, not believing everything you do, me nah put it past you, cos you’s a man and you would do what man say him have to do, like the rest you do the same things too. Two twos, there’s the talk on the street, that you say it’s me alone that are your only heart beat…’
So impressed is Byron with Anita’s addition to his song that he promises her the opportunity to perform with him later that night, before handing her his chain, willing her ‘confidence’ against her misgivings. This, sadly, is enough to turn her conviction around in word and, later, in deed. The motivations of this regression are individual yet understandable, in the context of the stigma and economic precarity surrounding baby mothers, as shown in the film. As with any great protagonist, we are introduced to her fatal flaw.
When Byron later steals Anita’s verse, her friend Yvette (Jocelyn Jee Esien) comments that maybe he ‘ain’t no different than the rest’, hinting at a widespread reality within the film’s world that is later upheld by Sharon’s baby father, Caesar (Vas Blackwood), who attempts to take advantage of Anita’s musical aspirations despite her being his own baby mother’s best friend. Also aware of the perceived pitfalls of baby fathers is Byron himself, who, in having made himself the first person subject of Anita’s third person diatribe has not only regurgitated her words, but also surely registered them in the process. This marks the departure from collaborative efforts between the two parents, whose next and final duet sees Byron’s ‘Forgive Me’ trampled by Anita’s brash rebuff ‘I Don’t Care’, shortly before Byron disappears on tour.
‘Gone too far’, Anita says when faced with the two children now solely in her care, who Byron appears to take very little responsibility for or acknowledge, until almost halfway through the film. It is unclear if she means they shouldn’t have to witness such disputes, or whether their survival – and certainly her own – is contingent on her rejection of their father’s advances – however we are left with the feeling that it is somehow the latter. The same reality perhaps underlies Sharon’s distress at the discovery of her own distant babyfather (we struggle to see them in more than one scene together), Caesar’s presumed betrayal with Anita, later on in the film. When Byron returns after an undefined period of time bearing no gifts, he slots himself with palpable entitlement into Anita’s home – a harbinger of what’s to come.
Whether artistic choice or a reflection of reality, many visibly hollow relationships have their depth and importance revealed through notions of lack. With regards to Anita and Sharon’s relationships with their respective baby fathers, a lack of physical presence, financial support, and loyalty demonstrates their specific utility to these women within the film’s setting. Likewise, the death of Anita’s mother, Edith (Corinne Skinner-Carter), brings with it the visible, yet unspoken absence of childcare support, leaving the protagonist distraught, despite little intimacy and frequent low-level tensions witnessed between the two. With writer Henriques being of Jamaican origin, and a storyline based on firsthand accounts from women immersed in the 90s dancehall scene, the mapping of such support systems held together by emotionally fraught ties around a mother’s passion, is a valid testament to a version of cultural and societal truth. Of their stories, Henriques says: “I was fascinated by these women who are determined to have a good time and remain in control of their lives.”
Debuting initially to drab reviews written in the noughties by “expert critics” (white men) far removed from the story’s setting, now more widespreadly available on platforms that invite public review, and most recently remastered by the BFI on blu-ray, the people have spoken and awarded Babymother its flowers. Where early reviews castigate the lack of emotional connection between Anita and her children – an observation as debatable as it is culturally subjective – modern audiences can benefit from taking at face value one of the many inevitabilities of social constraint, wherein a lack of money, career security and spousal support can and does contribute to the family dynamic witnessed, rather than prescribe singular social models to this and any other narratives they lack direct experience of. While the message of Anita’s battle-winning song, “Babymother”, seems somewhat incongruous with the obtuse brand of motherhood she portrays, we learn that she did in fact have an inkling that her elder sister, Rose (Suzette Llewellyn), was her mother all along, and was therefore subject herself to experiencing motherhood from a distance. In this, we witness the anthropological realities of models of maternal care. Babymother tells the story of a Black woman who is simply trying her best and is somehow, transcendental to the fictionality of the screenplay in which she exists, being asked to try harder. Perhaps the only thing falling short is the expectation of a discrete portrayal of the amorphic nature of the many identities that intersect with Black British motherhood.
To this point, there is a note to be added on the unexplained frequency with which Anita changes her hair (sometimes multiple times in a day). Those who are au fait with Black hair can deduce that given Anita’s personal and monetary constraints, these frequent transformations are likely rooted in fantasy. They are just one of many visual tenets of reverie which speak to the basis of the entire film; a ‘magical gateway’ to a world in which Anita is allowed to dream of and pursue her passions, all the while upholding the highly customisable role of baby mother. Her unapologetic hair metamorphoses provoke an urgent and undebatable acceptance of Black women overriding an audience’s needs for explanation or cinematic continuity.
The title, Babymother, appears to be a honey trap for our biases in that just minutes into the film, the lid closes on a cylindrical whirlwind of music, emotion and excitement, enticing audiences to rapidly abandon preconceptions and lean into a largely unpredictable and at times haphazard narrative – much like life itself. While the song with which Neeta, Sweeta, & Nastie find success speaks of motherhood, the story is ultimately one of an enduring love for music. A love for which Anita will fight, with the help of her two best friends, Sharon and Yvette, and the aid of female promoter Bee, to rise above their setting, deliver a killer set and win, be it against her own babies’ father. The shock factor delivered by Anita’s overriding love for music is a thing of multiplicity when it comes to the baby mother narrative: as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche rightly says, there is danger in a single story. Given that Henriques’ writing was borne largely from anecdotes, Babymother is a hyperbolic vessel through which one version of a story is told, while shining light on the undeniability of many others.
Babymother adds vibrance to the complex interior of single Black female motherhood as it intersects with family responsibility, shaky support systems, and dream chasing while, perhaps accidentally, also safeguarding its ultimately unknowable nature.
Babymother (1998), directed by Julian Henriques, is available to stream via 4 on demand for the next 21 days. Thereafter stream it on BFI Player and Amazon Prime, and purchase on Blueray and DVD online and in shops around the UK.
Feature image: Babymother (Julian Henriques, 1998) 0002 – A BFI Blu-ray release. Image courtesy of BFI.