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Gerima was raised in Ethiopia, where his father was a playwright, and in the late 60s emigrated to the U.S. to study at the Goodman School of Drama; in fact his experience of seeing a Chicago woman evicted from her home became the emotional impetus for Bush Mama. Long-suffering Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones) gets her purse stolen by a street kid in the very first scene; her husband, T.C. (Johnny Weathers), returns from Vietnam plagued by night terrors, but there are plenty of day terrors in Watts as well (like the man who shows up outside the local welfare office brandishing an ax and is casually shot down by the LAPD). T.C. comes home thinking he has a line on a good job that will give him experience with computers, but then he's picked up for a crime he didn't commit and sent to the slammer. In one striking sequence T.C. stares into the camera from behind the bars of his cell, reciting his letter to Dorothy, and the camera tracks down the cell row to survey a series of glaring black men. "They don't care if a brother stays blind," T.C. declares, "since that is death within itself and don't pose a threat to a decadent society. But once you start to see, baby, the light, the truth, then they cut it by shootin' you down—though that may kindle other lights."
Bush Mama might be most valuable as a social document pinpointing the moment when the hope of black power in the late 60s and early 70s disintegrated into addiction, despair, and recrimination. When Dorothy starts reciting some of T.C.'s revolutionary rhetoric, her brutally cynical friend Molly goes on a tirade: "Personally I don't know no white folks. Ain't but a handful of times I run across any. It's the niggers that's gone crazy! Bullshitting, backbiting, and killing each other." She recalls seeing a black man on TV, addressing a white audience, and can't believe he would spout left-wing sentiments instead of being a credit to his race; it's a precise notation of how the urban chaos of the 70s drove some blacks to internalize white power.
Most of the great films to come out of the LA Rebellion were politically oriented, but Bush Mama is particularly striking in its economic concerns, most evidently Gerima's preoccupation with the welfare state. The endless, invasive questions of social workers provide a running voice-over for the film, woven together at times into nightmarish aural montage. In one scene a child-welfare worker drops in and scolds Dorothy when she finds a bottle of liquor in the home; in a fantasy sequence Dorothy grabs the bottle and smashes it upside the woman's head, an image Gerima repeats again and again. The Hollywood blaxploitation movies of the era may have glamorized ill-gotten cash, yet from the margins of the industry came statements that made Shaft and Superfly look like so many jive turkeys.