Good Madam

Good Madam (Mlungu Wam) (2021)

Good Madam (Mlungu Wam) had its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2022 

“So we should just pretend not to be here even though we are?”, says young Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Reziya) to her mother Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) in Jenna Cato Bass’s Good Madam (Mlungu Wam), summarising the rules of their new home. After the death of her beloved grandmother, Tsidi has been made homeless by a family inheritance dispute, and so has brought Winnie to the big house where her own estranged, ageing mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has lived most of her life as a maid, in an affluent white area of Cape Town whose large leafy gardens and swimming pools contrast with the concentrated, corrugated slum housing of Tsidi’s own neighbourhood. Tsidi and Winnie are welcome to stay so long as, like Mavis, they know their place, and recognise the invisible barrier existing between themselves and the house’s bedridden mistress Diane (Jennifer Boraine) – the ‘Good Madam’ of the title – who lives bedridden in an upstairs room that is strictly out of bounds to all but Mavis.

In other words, Good Madam is an upstairs-downstairs drama about relations of class and race, set in a country whose ongoing history has been defined by such divisions. That history is here ‘grounded’ in the graveyard that Winnie finds on the garden’s borders, where previous generations of the house’s white owners have been buried alongside their black menials in a perpetual memorial of their master-slave dynamic. As Tsidi observes, Mavis also seems too devoted – indeed, unnaturally so – to her invalid employer. For not only did she in effect abandon her elder child Tsidi decades earlier so that she could continue serving Diane, but she also handed over a second, younger child – Tsidi’s half-brother Gcinumzi (Sanda Shandu) – for Diane to adopt as her own, and now she is still working herself to the bone when no younger and not much healthier than the madam she serves. Tsidi, worried. questions everything about the arrangement and eventually makes open reference to the elephant in the room, telling Mavis: “She has you living under apartheid.” For Tsidi, wary about the house and plagued with nightmares of entrapment, can see buried history repeating itself, and wonders with increasing alarm where she and her own daughter fit into the good madam’s scheme. 

The Good Madam turns the horrors of South Africa’s social divide into the tropes of genre, as Diane’s family property, built on earth seized centuries ago, becomes a microcosm of a land still haunted by unrestful ghosts and unresolved disparities. Now ‘Coconut’ Gcinumzi goes by the name Stuart, hangs out with his white friends, and speaks mostly in English – much as Winnie too, to Tsidi’s consternation, is shifting from her mother tongue Xhosa, getting regular lifts to school from white neighbours rather than from her own father Luthando (Khanyiso Kenqa), and starting to refer to the unseen Diane as a member of her own family. Tsidi can see that all this is less assimilation than cultural colonisation, and that her subservient mother – and perhaps even herself – are under a similar spell of white dominance. Even as Diane is heard rasping and snoring and spluttering like Helena Markos from Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) or like Mrs Jessel from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid (2011), Bass’s film shifts – via Ancient Egyptian death rituals – into grotesque, bloody horror, translocating the themes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) to a country even more racially polarised than America. 

The supernatural elements in The Good Woman can, for viewers so inclined, be rationalised away as the deluded perceptions of a young woman suffering a mental breakdown in an uncomfortable environment – but on any reading, Bass’s film depicts both a quiet revolution, and the insidious continuation (and exportation) of a social iniquity which, though occasionally disrupted, never truly dies.

strap: Jenna Cato Bass’ South African domestic horror shows a black mother wondering if she can get out of her nation’s legacy of social division

© Anton Bitel