A Haunting Thriller Set in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Apartheid ended in South Africa on May 4, 1990, but little has been done to help improve the situation. South Africa suffers politically from corruption, while poverty remains a critical talking point, as the overall poverty rate in the country is high. In 2020, it was reported that 30.3 million people in the country are considered within the poverty range, making the overall percentage 55.5%. Those figures are deeply concerning with the recent history of colonialism and Apartheid. Many of those considered poor are Black, a remnant of the colonial legacy in the country.
One recent movie, Good Madam, tackles the subject of Apartheid’s legacy. It premiered internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021 alongside other big movies that year, like Last Night in Soho, the doomed adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, Belfast, and Drive My Car. Good Madam took home the Honorable Mention for the Platform Prize, landing a spot on the festival’s award lists. The film will be exclusively released on Shudder Thursday, July 14, 2022, a year after its initial premiere. Shudder is AMC Networks’ streaming service for horror, thriller, and supernatural-based movies.
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South African director Jenna Cato Bass spearheads as the director; this is Bass’ fourth feature film. Two of her previous movies, Love the One You Love and High Fantasy, gained acclaim on the international film festival circuits and were noted for their use of iPhone footage being implemented into the shots. Born in London but raised in South Africa, her work focuses on contemporary South Africa and the issues that arise with the country’s recent history and current situation. Outside of her filmmaking career as a director, Bass has written for several other movies and is a fiction writer. It is no mystery after seeing her work that she holds a background as a writer.
The main cast of Good Madam consists of actors Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Siya Sikawuti, Peggy Tunyiswa, and Chris Gxalaba. Cosa and Mtebe are the key stars of this show, as they portray a single mother (Cosa) who moves back in with her mother (Mtebe), becoming the catalyst for the events to come. It is these two performances that will set the stage and ambiance of the entire movie, making the story become deeply unsettling and providing the framework to make its themes truly come alive.
An Estranged Daughter and Mother Reunite
From its opening scenes, Good Madam establishes one of the overarching threads about its characters: they are trapped in a cycle of domestic affairs. Whether it is dumping water down a drain or washing the dishes, the sound is increased, making it all-consuming. It seems impossible to escape and sets the tone immediately. Even the house that Mavis (Mtebe) works in feels like a permanent trap, a prison, as the fences are topped with barbed wire. That does not deter Tsidi (Cosa) from coming in and trying to make a home there. Tsidi is Mavis’ daughter, but the two have been estranged for years. She considers her grandmother to be her real mother.
Tsidi is now a single mother, and she was raised by her grandmother. Unfortunately, the grandmother has just died, but Mavis works in the wealthy part of Cape Town as a maid. She has been a maid for an elderly white woman dubbed Madam for thirty years, living in the home with her. Mavis chose to leave her children behind to pursue work, thus metaphorically abandoning her children to raise a wealthy white woman’s kids instead. Because Tsidi has no choice and must turn to her mother for help, as she is separated from her daughter’s father, she turns to her mother in her time of need despite the fact they do not have a relationship.
In one hour and thirty-one minutes, Good Madam creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that seeks to undo the damage of Apartheid on its characters. Although it is set in the wealthy section of Cape Town, the majority of the film’s cast is Black. Out of South Africa’s population of about sixty million people, almost eighty percent of the population in a census declared themselves to be Black. However, despite Apartheid no longer existing in the country, the wealth gap has not changed much. According to Aljazeera, roughly 10% of the population of South Africa owns more than 80% of the entire population’s wealth. This lands South Africa as one of the top countries for wealth inequality, and, when looking at the impacts of colonialism and Apartheid on the nation, it is unsurprising that the wealthiest elite is mainly white.
Even when Tsidi initially enters the home with her daughter, Mavis reiterates many rules to her, putting them into a box of what they can and cannot do. On a superficial level, this makes sense, as they are technically visitors to this home, but upon closer examination, it adds a deeper layer of complexity to the power dynamics. While Tsidi believes that Mavis does not owe anything to the woman she works for, Mavis has devoted—and continues to do so—her life to taking care of the Madam. The Madam is beyond her youthful days and is rarely seen on camera, but from what is shown of Madam, she is not much older than Mavis herself. It seems like Mavis will work until the end of her days, just like her predecessors. This is why when Tsidi and her daughter Winnie disrupt the house’s norms, touching fine china or doing something deemed unacceptable, Mavis is horrified at how they cross a line originally established by Apartheid.
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Two Sides of the Same Coin
Tsidi rejects these notions of feeling like they owe something to the people who originally stole this land for them, creating this permeating sense of dread and reluctance each time the house is shown. It is not depicted as cozy or something that someone would live in; it seems cold, untouched by inhabitants outside of the Tsidi’s family members residing there. She also straddles the line between two completely different worlds. She was raised in the poorer sections of Cape Town by her grandmother, while her half-brother has been brought up in Madam’s house and is seen as a family member of the white South African family. It is her defiance that leads her to believe that she can do as she pleases within the home.
That’s when the movie takes a supernatural twist. When Tsidi enters a room, she discovers that the door somehow has been locked, keeping her contained in that space. In addition to that, she starts hearing noises and having visions, her body slowly taking the brunt of this damage. In one scene, Tsidi is seen scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, becoming a mirror to her mother. She has succumbed to the fate that so many before her have experienced: becoming a live-in servant for a wealthy household to find upward mobility in South Africa. That, unfortunately, proves to be a desperate illusion, as, like those buried on the property, they will never truly own what was theirs, to begin with.
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One of the movie’s biggest strengths is its leading two actresses. Mavis and Tsidi are foils to each other, holding up mirrors to show what life could look like if they broke free of the socioeconomic constraints they have been forced into. Despite the two meeting for what could be the first time in years, as Tsidi shows up at the front door unannounced, the actresses play off this tension and relationship excellently. Yet, at the same time, if the Madam were to disappear completely from the equation, all of them would be put on the street, creating this uneasy sense of understanding of the current situation. It breaks down Tsidi’s spirit until she, too, begins to understand her mother’s plight even though she was forced to comply.
Cinematography and the shot choices also play into this. Although the film had a limited budget, the sound and set design evoke the feeling that this house is haunted and something is amiss here. While the movie’s first half unfolds slowly, setting up the stage for what is to come, it still is tightly knit and does its job well. By the time the second act unleashes all its supernatural tricks, it does not lose any of the tension it established at the beginning of the film and serves to further its point and hammer it down for the viewer. Good Madam is not an ordinary thriller about society; it is likely to draw comparisons to Jordan Peele’s work, especially with Get Out. Once you look deeper, Good Madam offers critical lessons about contemporary South Africa and beyond.
Good Madam is available to stream exclusively on Shudder starting July 14, 2022.