madeline's madeline

After numerous experiments and going back-and-forth on her own creative impulses, Evangeline places Madeline’s personal monologue on a pedestal. This is her chance to make great art out of someone else’s pain. This, finally, is Evangeline’s Zia. She lays well-intentioned claim to the character while Madeline and Regina’s wounds lie gaping in front of her. At last! A breakthrough! Though this is precisely where Okwui Okpokwasili’s presence takes on paramount importance. Her character K.K. objects to this co-opting of trauma, resulting in the whole troupe questioning the ethics of Evangeline’s approach, turning the film into a meta-text on its own creation.

Who is Evangeline, regardless of her proximity to blackness, to decide how this story ought to be told? Who is director Josephine Decker, a white woman, to step in and unpack the tale of a black biracial daughter and the walls she puts up between herself and her white mother and her black absentee father? Or for that matter, who is Decker to make Helena Howard, a biracial child, bare her soul so painfully on screen for white audiences to see? That Decker does so regardless of her trepidation feels both like a have/eat cake situation, as well as an inevitable outcome of asking the question in the first place. The “who” matters, in storytelling, as a means to questioning the “why” and “how,” which Decker proceeds to do in gloriously mind-bending fashion.

The in-roads from this point on focus on neither the specifics of the mother-daughter relationships nor the racial dynamics between them; at least, not in the ways we’re used to. The dynamics are ever-present, though the act of expanding upon them in words that neither Decker nor Madeline seem to have — albeit for different reasons — would feel specifically disingenuous to Madeline’s Madeline. Instead of providing answers, it asks questions through its meta-text, allowing the actors to dig deep and create something unique and, dare I say, freeing.

Okwui Okpokwasili’s casting isn’t an accident ether. The Igbo-Nigerian American actress, dancer and performance artist is herself the mother of a biracial daughter, and she steps in for a mere handful of scenes where a performer of her caliber ordinarily might not. Her very presence in the rehearsal space recalls her self-choreographed performance in the documentary Bronx Gothic, which reaches into the depths of her life and childhood in order to craft a personal artistic statement, born from the constant pull-and-push between existing while black, and existing in a world of whiteness — for instance Okpokwasili’s husband, a white man, directed the show, though she maintains that its power stems from her perspective. The haunting one-woman piece exorcises the demon that is numbness to black pain; no performance by the characters in Madeline’s Madeline approaches nearly that level of physical intensity (Evangeline’s trouple feels like a fun side project for everyone involved), that is, unless you count Madeline’s plea to be heard as she falls at her mother’s feet.

It’s amidst the co-opting of Madeline’s pain that Okpokwasili provides a hesitant voice of reason. Real art, as Okpokwasili and her character K.K. no doubt know, often comes from real suffering, but the role of the storyteller is one that must be investigated when stories like film and theatre act as collective social art forms, drawing from painful sources outside the self. And while Decker stepping aside in a film of her own making is a paradoxical no-go, she opts, instead, to take the power out of the hands of traditional cinematic narrative, thrusting her actors (and the actors they play) headfirst into their own abstract performance piece, born from collective spirit and in direct opposition to creating from selfishness, as a means to find new methods of expression.

The film, like its climax, is an artistic rebellion. It’s constantly in search of new ways to tell stories that aren’t constrained by an artistic lexicon cemented over a century — is it too soon to bring up Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette? — a polished, binary visual language that often fails to capture the unspoken rough edges of race, gender and sexuality as building blocks of human experience.

Madeline’s Madeline could not have existed in any form other than the formless, grounding its aesthetic anarchy in the chaotic worldview of a troubled young girl, as she tumbles between enormous expectations and adult realities that, despite their proximity or good-intentions, feel worlds removed. By fitting a conventional coming-of-age narrative into an experimental space, from scenes of rehearsal to centering a Black performance artist as creative conscience, the film cuts right to the heart of the expression itself, exploring the very mechanics by which we, as audiences and as artists, make sense of the world around us through creation. What’s more, it goes the extra mile to ask how this enormous responsibility ought to be wielded.

***

Madeline’s Madeline is in theaters today.

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About the Author

Siddhant is an independent filmmaker & film critic working out of Mumbai & New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SidizenKane.