Review: ‘Earth Mama,’ starring Tia Nomore, Erika Alexander, Doechii, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Keta Price, Olivia Luccardi, Dominic Fike and Bokeem Woodbine

July 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tia Nomore and Erika Alexander in “Earth Mama” (Photo by Gabriel Saravia/A24)

“Earth Mama”

Directed by Savanah Leaf

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, the dramatic film “Earth Mama” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted, financially broke single mother, who is pregnant and in rehab counseling, goes through various struggles, as she tries to regain custody of her two kids in foster care and has to decide what do about how her third child will be raised.

Culture Audience: “Earth Mama” will appeal primarily to people who are interesting in watching good acting in an artfully made gritty film, even if the movie rehashes a lot of familiar themes about American women living in urban poverty.

Tia Nomore (sitting on floor) and Doechii (sitting on couch) in “Earth Mama” (Photo by Gabriel Saravia/A24)

“Earth Mama” has very impressive acting performances, but it doesn’t offer any new ideas. It over-uses tiresome negative stereotypes of black women as drug-addicted single mothers, while the diversity of black women is muted or ignored in this movie. “Earth Mama” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Although the movie’s technical crafts are admirable, “Earth Mama” has the same old clichés that have been unfortunately used by ignorant people as reasons to believe the lie that most African American women are inferior, stuck in a “ghetto” rut, and doomed to fail in life.

Written and directed by Savanah Leaf, “Earth Mama” is her feature-film directorial debut and is based on Leaf’s 2020 short film “The Heart Still Hums.” Although it’s usually not necessary to point out a filmmaker’s race in a review, it should be noted that Leaf is African American. That’s really no excuse for any filmmaker to perpetuate some of the movie’s damaging portrayals that economically deprived people are a bunch of self-pitying whiners. And to be clear: There is a lot of self-pitying whining in this movie, which comes dangerously close to being offensive in how low-income African American women are portrayed as being of a similar mindset, instead of showing a more realistic variety.

In “Earth Mama” (which takes place in the San Francsico Bay Area, mostly in Oakland), single mother Gia (played Tia Nomore) is 24 years old, pregnant, in outpatient drug rehab, and struggling to get by on her low income, part-time job as an assistant at a small photography studio in a shopping mall. The movie unfolds over the course of a few months, like chapters in Gia’s life. Some of Gia’s life before this time period is explained, while other questions that viewers might have about Gia’s past remain unanswered. In the beginning of the movie, which is told in chronological order, Gia is about eight months pregnant.

At a certain point in the movie, what is revealed is that Gia has two other children who are in foster care because of her legal problems and drug addiction. (Viewers find out later that Gia is addicted to crack cocaine and in recovery for it.) Gia’s oldest child is daughter Shayna (played by Alexis Rivas), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Her middle child is son Trey (played by Ca’Ron Coleman), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Fortunately, Trey and Shayna are both being taken care of in the same foster home, for now.

Gia has limited and supervised visitation rights with Shayna and Trey. Shayna mostly refuses to talk to Gia, despite Gia’s best efforts. Trey is more receptive to Gia’s attention. Gia wants to regain custody of Shayna and Trey, but the odds are stacked against Gia because of her troubled history and because she can’t afford to take care of these kids.

“Earth Mama” shows Gia as a doting and concerned mother when she visits Shayna and Trey. As a way to bond with these two children, Gia gives sensory rings to Shayna and Trey that match a sensory ring that Gia has. “Earth Mama” doesn’t go into details over the reasons why Gia lost custody of Shayna and Trey, but Gia is on probation and appears to be very remorseful and willing to make amends for whatever she did to cause this difficult situation.

The fathers of these children are not seen or mentioned in “Earth Mama.” Gia says more than once in the movie that she’s not really interested in dating anyone. She also seems bitter and pessimistic about ever finding a true love partner who will treat her with kindness and respect. In other words, she’s been badly hurt by the fathers of her children.

Gia’s closest companion is her best friend Trina (played by Doechii), who is also pregnant and without a love partner. Trina firmly believes that Gia should keep Gia’s unborn child and do everything legally possible to win back custody of Shayna and Trey. Trina is very outspoken with her opinion that if Gia doesn’t raise these three children herself, then Gia is being a “bad mother.”

Gia later befriends a somewhat androgynous woman in her 20s named Mel (played by Keta Price), who meets Gia when Mel helps Gia assemble a baby crib. Mel doesn’t state what her sexuality is, but the movie implies that Mel is probably sexually attracted to Gia, who treats Mel as a platonic friend. A man in his 20s named Miles (played by Dominic Fike) also comes into Gia’s life as a friend.

Gia’s case worker in government social services is Miss Carmen (played by Erika Alexander), who is empathetic about Gia’s situation but she doesn’t coddle Gia. Carmen also encourages Gia to explore her options on what to do about Gia’s unborn child. Carmen thinks the best option would be for Gia to give this unborn child up for adoption.

After initially resisting the idea, Gia meets a prospective adoptive family: a middle-aged, middle-class, married couple named Monica (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Paul (played by Bokeem Woodbine) and their daughter Amber (played by Kamaya “Kami” Jones), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Amber has mixed-to-positive feelings about getting a younger sibling through adoption. Monica and Paul are very eager to have another child.

Monica and Paul give Gia a summary of their courtship and marriage. Paul and Monica, who began dating each other when they were college, got married and became parents to Amber when Paul and Monica were still very young. The couple decided to wait to have another child until after they were more financially stable.

Years later, when Monica and Paul felt the time was right to have a second child, Monica had difficulty conceiving. And that’s why Monica and Paul are turning to adoption to have a second child. Although they know it would be easier to adopt a child from a country with less restrictive adoption laws, Paul and Monica (who are both African American) have decided they wanted to go through the U.S. adoption system, specifically to adopt a child who is the same race as they are.

“Earth Mama” shows a series of vignettes in Gia’s life before, during and after she makes the decision of whether or not to give up her unborn child for adoption. These vignettes are very “slice of life,” including some repetitive scenes of Gia at her job, where she mainly makes sure that backdrops and props are prepared when people take studio portraits. There are also several repetitive scenarios showing how financially broke Gia is, such as scenes of her using her prepaid phone and being worried that the phone will soon run out of money.

At group rehab meetings, Gia has to be prompted to open up about her feelings and experiences. These rehab meetings show people telling their sob stories with a self-defeating “woe is me/I’m stuck and I can’t do better” attitude. Expect to hear people complaining about their bad childhoods in these meetings instead of wanting to figure out how to improve their lives.

“Earth Mama” deals with race relations as something to get out of the way in the story, because the movie is more interested in its agenda of getting audiences to feel sympathy for Gia. Race relations in “Earth Mama” are not adequately explored or depicted. In real life, people in Gia’s community and environment would talk a lot more about racism than they do in this movie.

The closest that thing that “Earth Mama” does to show any racial tension is a scene during one of the rehab meetings that Gia attends. White people are in the minority in these meetings, not because white people have less drug problems than people who aren’t white, but because these meetings happen to take place in an area where most of the people are not white. When one of these white attendees—a young woman named Alexis (played by Olivia Luccardi—begins rambling while talking, Gia expresses some annoyance that Alexis seems to get more time to talk because Alexis is white.

Gia isn’t a very complicated person, but Nomore gives a wonderfully nuanced performance that skillfully expresses many of Gia’s emotions that Gia might not say out loud. Fortunately, “Earth Mama” doesn’t succuumb to two lazy movie/TV stereotypes of black women living in poverty: making single mother Gia always fighting with her “baby daddies,” or having Gia speak like she wouldn’t be able to pass a basic course in English grammar. Gia isn’t academically well-educated, but she can communicate well when she wants to communicate well.

Gia is not saintly—she can be rude and somewhat flaky—but the movie really goes out of its way to distract viewers from thinking about why Gia lost custody of her children. “Earth Mama” has some horror-like elements that show Gia’s nightmarish hallucinations. A frequent hallucination that Gia has shows her pulling out the umblical cord from her body. There are artfully hazy scenes of Gia wandering in a forest. And composer Kelly Lu’s dreamlike piano-based musical score complement the somewhat pretentious way that “Earth Mama” shows urban decay as a type of cinematic art project.

“Earth Mama” obviously wants to have a certain portrayal of African American womanhood. But perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of “Earth Mama” is how it doesn’t do enough to show more diversity of African American women in this environment. Not all low-income African American women see themselves as perpetual victims, like Gia does. Not all low-income African American women see their situations as too hard to overcome, like Gia does. Gia is in survival mode, but she’s also stuck in a cycle of self-pity. Gia also takes for granted that she has access to several free and helpful resources that many impoverished women (especially in Third World countries) do not have.

Alexander’s performance as Carmen is compelling but abbreviated. There are hints that social worker Carmen has a very interesting life and can relate to Gia more than Gia knows, but “Earth Mama” fails to bring more of Carmen to the movie, other than being a concerned and occasionally lecturing authority figure. Potential adopter Monica is another female character who is very underdeveloped in the movie, probably because it would ruin the “Earth Mama” narrative of poor Gia having such a hard life.

People who do not personally know a variety of black women are most likely to hail “Earth Mama” as a very insightful look into the state of black womanhood. Meanwhile, people who personally know a variety of black women—and know that most black women are not single mothers with arrest records and drug addictions—are less likely to charmed by this skewed lens of black womanhood that “Earth Mama” offers. There’s a reason why audiences of all races and backgrounds are turning away from these movies that are about “black people stuck in the ghetto”: These types of movies—which were in abundance in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—seem played out in modern times, when there is so much more awareness of many real-life black people who do not live and have never lived that type of “ghetto” life.

A24 released “Earth Mama” in select U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Dune’ (2021), starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya and Jason Momoa

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Timothée Chalamet in “Dune” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

“Dune” (2021)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Caladan, Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A territorial war is brewing between two factions—House Atreides from the planet of Caladan and House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Primewho will rule over the planet of Arrakis, which is the only place to find melange, also known as spice, a priceless substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Culture Audience: “Dune” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Dune” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

By now, you might have heard that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wants his version of “Dune” to be split into three parts, in order to better serve the movie adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” People who see Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” are also probably familiar with the 1984 movie flop “Dune,” directed by David Lynch. The 1984 version of “Dune” (starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and Sting) was such a disaster with fans and critics, Lynch wanted to have his name removed from the film credits. That won’t be the case with Villeneuve’s version of “Dune,” which is a sci-fi epic worthy of the novel.

Villeneuve co-wrote his “Dune” screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts. Part One of Villeneuve’s “Dune” is of much higher quality than the 1984 “Dune” movie, but any “Dune” movie’s cinematic interpretations tend to be a bit clinical in how the characters are written. “Dune” is a gloomy story, with characters who are, for the most part, very solemn and rarely smile. There are no wisecracking rogues, quirky robot sidekicks or cute alien creatures. In other words, “Dune” is no “Star Wars” saga.

As is the case with most epic sci-fi movies, the biggest attraction to “Dune” is to see the spectacle of immersive production designs and outstanding visual effects. When people say that “Dune” should be seen on the biggest screen possible, believe it. However, it’s a 156-minute movie whose pace might be a little too slow in some areas. If you’re not the type of person who’s inclined to watch a two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi movie that’s not based on a comic book or a cartoon, then “Dune” might not be the movie for you.

And this is a fair warning to anyone who likes their sci-fi movies to have light-hearted, fun banter between characters: “Dune” is not that type of story, because everything and everyone in this story is deadly serious. People might have laughed when watching Lynch’s “Dune,” but it was for all the wrong reasons.

And yes, “Dune” is yet another sci-fi /fantasy story about a young hero who leads a war against an evil villain who wants to take over the universe. In the case of “Dune,” the hero is Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), the House Atreides heir who is the son of a duke. House Antreides exists on the oceanic planet of Caladan. And like any war story, the war usually starts with feuding over power.

House Antreides has had a rivalry with House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime. In the beginning of the movie, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV has ordered Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) to serve as fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain. Arrakis is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. And therefore, harvesting spice can be a deadly activity. However, because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis. The native people of Arrakis are called Fremen. The movie presents this colonialism of the Fremen people in a matter-of-fact way, with some (but not a lot of) initial insight into how the Fremen people feel about being ruled over by another group of people from a foreign land.

House Harkonnen had previously overseen Arrakis until that responsibility was given to House Antreides. Leto and his troops are under orders to visit Arrakis, but it’s a set-up so that House Harkonnen enemies can ambush the people from House Antreides. Leto suspects that this trap has been set, but he has no choice but to follow orders and see about the territory that has now come under his stewardship.

The chief villain of House Harkonnen is its leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant who has a penchant for spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. In the 1984 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir was a cartoonish character who floated through the air like a demented balloon that escaped from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the 2021 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir is a menacing presence that is undoubtedly pure evil. (This “Dune” movie has shades of “Apocalypse Now” because Baron Vladimir is presented in a way that might remind people of “Apocalypse Now” villain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.)

Baron Vladimir’s closest henchmen are his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista) and coldly analytical Piter De Vries (played by David Dastmalchian), who is a Mentat: a person that can mimic a computer’s artificial intelligence. At House Antreides, the Mentat is Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), while the loyal mentors who are training Paul for battle are no-nonsense Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin) and adventurous Duncan Idaho (played by Jason Momoa), who is the closest that “Dune” has to having a character with a sense of humor.

Paul confides in certain people that he’s been having premonition-like dreams. In several of these visions, he keeps seeing a young Fremen woman who’s close to his age. Paul won’t meet her until much later in the movie. He will find out that her name is Chani (played by Zendaya), and she becomes a huge part of his life in a subsequent Villeneuve “Dune” movie. Don’t expect there to be any romance in Part One of the movie. When Chani meets Paul for the first time, it’s not exactly love at first sight for Chani. She has this dismissive reaction and says to Paul: “You look like a little boy.”

Paul also keeps envisioning Duncan as living with the Fremen people and being their ally in battle. Paul is also disturbed by a vision of seeing Duncan “lying dead among soldiers after battle.” And speaking of allegiances, Paul’s intuition tells him that there is someone in House Antreides who is a traitor. That person will eventually be revealed. Until then, it’s pretty obvious from Paul’s visions that he has psychic powers. The question then becomes: “How is he going to use those powers?”

Among the other Fremen people who are depicted in the movie is Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr, whose members include a fighter named Jamis (played by Babs Olusanmokun). Arrakis also as an Imperial judge/ecologist named Dr. Liet-Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who acts as a go-between/negotiator between the Fremen people and those who come from foreign lands.

There are some poignant father-son moments between Paul and Leto. Their best scene together is after a devastating battle loss when Paul, who is reluctant to be the next ruler of House Antreides, gets reassurance from Leto. The duke says to his son that he didn’t want to be the leader of House Antreides either, because Leto wanted to be a pilot instead. Leto tells Paul that it will ultimately up to Paul to decide whether to be the leader of House Antreides “But if the answer is no,” Leto says, “You’re all I’ll ever needed you to be: my son.”

However, Paul ends up spending more time bonding (and sometimes disagreeing) with his mother Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a brave warrior who is a member of Bene Gesserit, an all-female group with extraordonary physical and mental abilities. Jessica defied Bene Gesserit’s orders to bear a female child and had Paul instead. Villeneuve’s “Dune” spends a great deal of time showing Paul and Jessica’s quest on Arrakis than Lynch’s “Dune” did. Paul seems to know that he was born as a special child, but at times, it brings him more insecurities than confidence. At one point, Paul yells at his mother Jessica: “You did this to me! You made me a freak!”

One of the influential supporting characters who’s depicted in Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” is Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), a Bene Gesserit reverend mother and the emperor’s truthsayer. She has one of the most memorable scenes in “Dune” when she gives Paul a pain endurance test that further proves that Paul is no ordinary human being. Dr. Wellington Yueh (played by Chang Chen) is a Suk doctor for House Antreides, and he plays a pivotal role in the story.

Chalamet’s portrayal of Paul is someone who can be introspective yet impulsive. He skillfully portrays a young adult who’s at the stage in his life where he wants to prove his independent identity yet still seeks his parents’ approval. Momoa is also a standout in the film for giving more humanity to a role that could’ve been just a stereotypical warrior type. Ferguson also does well in her performance as the strong-willed Jessica.

But make no mistake: “Dune” is not going to win any major awards for the movie’s acting. Before being released in theaters and on HBO Max, “Dune” made the rounds with premieres at several prestigious film festivals, including the Venice International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. This festival run is in indication that the filmmakers want this version of “Dune” to be a cut above a typical blockbuster sci-fi movie. “Dune” excels more in its technical aspects rather than in the movie’s acting performances or screenplay.

“Dune” has the type of fight scenes and musical score (by Hans Zimmer) that one can expect of an action film of this high caliber. But even with a movie that’s rich with characters who are heroes, villains and everything in between, it’s enough to say that the sandworms really steal scenes and are what people will remember most about this version of “Dune.” The overall visual effects and a reverence for the “Dune” novel as the source material are truly what make this version of “Dune” an iconic sci-fi movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Dune” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 21, 2021, a day earlier than the announced U.S. release date of October 22, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning in September 2021.

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