Certain countries (and languages) are largely underrepresented or completely absent from the horror genre, so when the Xhosa-speaking South African movie GOOD MADAM showed up at a film festival I had to see it. Even within South African horror films (of which there are few), there is no representation of the Xhosa people, nor the fears of their particular culture. Many festival-goers are comparing GOOD MADAM to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and while similarities are there, GOOD MADAM takes us into a world rarely seen in movies, let alone the horror genre. Director Jenna Cato Bass uses MLUNGU WAM [GOOD MADAM] to tell a ghost story that focuses on generations of loss as well as the racial divide which still exists in South Africa today. Co-created by Babalwa Baartman (and apparently most of the cast), Bass tells a terrifying story of a divided family and nation, which leads to a psychological thriller where one woman fights for her identity.
In the opening sequence, we get a parallel between the sprawling area of Cape Town and extreme close-ups of hands. The aerial shots show the expansiveness of the city and the zoomed-in perspectives show the busy hands which work tirelessly to clean the small details few will ever see. The film combines tropes from haunted house stories with post-apartheid horror, but the theme which truly binds these concepts comes from the notion of family. Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) spent most of her life with her grandmother and helped take care of the aging woman and her house up until her passing. So, when it came to deciding who would inherit the property, Tsidi does not expect the male members of her family to come in and take everything. Despite all the love and effort Tsidi put into the home, her gender deems her more like a servant (even by her own family) and she loses everything. Unwilling to watch the home become disrespected by greedy relatives, Tsidi takes her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) and storms off (but not before stealing her grandmother’s coat).
With all of her relatives imposing their maleness all over her beloved home, Tsidi and Winnie take a more feminine escape and move in with Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), Tsidi’s estranged mother (played by an actual domestic worker). Through the interactions between the three generations of women, we learn long ago Mavis essentially abandoned her own daughter to live in a more affluent part of Cape Town. She left the grandmother to raise Tsidi, while Mavis became a live-in servant and spent her days raising her white Madam’s kids. Obviously, Tsidi holds a strong resentment towards her mother, but with a lack of options she reluctantly moves in, and Mavis reluctantly takes her in. And despite the failing health of Madam, all rules remain rigid: stay away from the pool, fridge, and above all else, never enter Madam’s room. Winnie makes the comment about how they have to act like they are not there, and this one line painfully touches on the invisible lives many Black Africans lead under the white minority.
In South African history (as in many countries) colonizers stole the land from the rightful owners, and then enslaved the native people. Generations later the invaders still own everything: The land, the work, and the laborers. And the theft became so ingrained in the minds of some of the people, that they can no longer fear or even recognize the displacement. So, rather than fighting and taking a stand for what is theirs, they instead fear losing the identity forced upon them. Generational trauma of involuntary domestication appears in Mavis because she can’t stop cleaning and has become institutionalized in her role under a white woman. Even though now elderly (and even older than her Madam), she continues to work hard every day all day. Mavis can’t even imagine a life for herself and something as simple as drinking from her Madam’s mug seems inappropriate to her. Tsidi becomes determined to save Mavis from her life of servitude and sets out to break every one of Madam’s precious rules, but her mother only tearfully breaks down claiming she needs her Madam. Mavis lost so much of her life and herself to Madam, she realizes that once the old white woman dies, Mavis will have nowhere to go.
The first half of GOOD MADAM touches on a lot of historical content (both within the family and the nation), but the second half of the film plays more with the supernatural. However, Bass never strays far from the reality of the racial injustice and continues to meld the generational trauma aimed at Black bodies with a sinister and unworldly atmosphere. Don’t look away for even a moment because the spectral appearances sometimes happen quickly, and every inch of the house helps with the tone of the film and the mood-altering behavior we see in Tsidi. The house showcases a variety of African art from all over the continent, which represents how Madam does not see the differences between the many cultures and only views their symbols (and their people) as collectibles.
Madam’s house tells an elaborate story that goes beyond Tsidi’s family and after finding how many bodies are actually buried, the uncomfortable setting becomes very disquieting. Cosa’s long list of battles continues to grow as she fights for her own possessions, her mother, her history, her daughter, and eventually her identity. The historical trauma blends well with the unsettling atmosphere of the house and the ominous (and sometimes grating) sound design shows how hard Tsidi has to fight for everything. GOOD MADAM provides a strong cast (with mostly improvised lines), and Bass presents the lore and history in a way that the audience will not feel smothered with exposition dumps. Instead, the story and the horror slowly surround the viewer, making us another invisible person at Madam’s house.