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Good Madam
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Movie Reviews

‘Good Madam’ (2021) review: Post-colonial South African psychological horror

A subtle look at the legacies of apartheid

Good Madam is the story of Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), a single mother who has to move in with her mother Mavis. Mavis is a domestic worker for a wealthy white woman; she lives in a beautiful house in an affluent Cape Town suburb caring for Madam. The house has a few simple rules: no running, no touching the fridge, no going in the pool alone, and do not go into Madam’s room.

Beginning with a scene of a Black woman in a maid’s uniform going about mundane tasks like dusting and cleaning, Good Madam immediately instills a sense of unease. Once the title screen rolls, though, the film takes its time setting the scene and building up suspense. 

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The house Tsidi has returned to is the same house that she spent much time in when younger, visiting family, and she prays to her deceased grandmother for forgiveness for how she left her family. Through flashbacks, we see the conflict that interrupted the family’s life. Like any family, the dynamics and arguments are complicated and layered, and more is revealed slowly as the film progresses. 

Tension runs through Tsidi’s life; Winnie’s father, Luthanda, is irresponsible and Tsidi argues with him often. She also argues with her mother; the two have some old wounds to heal. As Tsidi prays for guidance in healing these old wounds, she also begins to have nightmares. While Tsidi is unhappy to have to return to the home, shaken up by nightmares and the past, her daughter Winnie is happy to spend time with her grandmother in a beautiful house. 

Good Madam often focuses the camera on the details of domestic work. Mavis is constantly working, doing everything she can to keep the home clean and perfect for Madam. The camera also lingers on artwork; Winnie’s innocent but unsettling drawings, Egyptian papyrus, and African sculptures. While the meaning of these images may be mysterious at first, the significance is slowly revealed. Nothing in Good Madam is too obvious or heavy-handed, although some of these focused camera moments — some of which are showing how white people see the Black people who keep their homes running — feel a bit clunky and depersonalized. 

The first mention that Tsidi feels that her mother is working too hard for this white woman, who at this point we still have not laid eyes on, is when Tsidi says that she is being put under apartheid by Madam. Mavis vehemently denies this, exclaiming that she likes working for Diane, that she is a good employer. It’s clear that this dynamic bothers Tsidi, but she doesn’t want to push too hard — after all, she’s living in Diane’s house too. 

When Tsidi finally ventures upstairs to Madam Diane’s quarters, she begins rifling through her drawers as though she knows exactly what she’s looking for. It isn’t until this point in the film, at about exactly halfway through, that we get to — just barely — see Madam in the flesh. It’s a jarring experience for both Tsidi and the viewer. 

Colonialism and apartheid are a huge part of South Africa’s history, much like colonialism, genocide, and slavery are a huge part of the United States’ history. It isn’t truly until the film’s third act that these themes are explored outright, although they are gently hinted at throughout the film. Good Madam was directed by Jenna Cato Bass, a white South African woman; perhaps this tale of a Black family would have been better in the hands of a director who could truly understand, personally, the impact of apartheid, land theft, and racism. To her credit, Bass did co-write the film with star Chumisa Cosa and Babalwaa Baartman, among other South Africans. 

The use of language and sound is a crucial part of Good Madam. While the film is almost entirely in Xhosa, Tsidi’s brother Gcinumzi (who is also called Stuart) grew up in Diane’s house, and he speaks a British accented English. Tsidi rarely speaks English, and does not like it much when Winnie speaks it around her. It eventually becomes clear how Tsidi’s family was torn apart by this white family. 

Good Madam

Shudder

In a word, Good Madam is subtle. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film is also one of its most fleeting- when Tsidi first arrives at Madam’s house, a white woman runs by and gives her a quizzical, dirty look. At the end of the film, Tsidi is in a maid’s uniform, and that same white woman runs by and waves to Tsidi. This simple moment speaks to white people’s comfort and expectations, and the racism that lingers long after the official end of apartheid

Good Madam is admirable for its originality in handling this tale. It’s slow moving, and requires that the viewer pay close attention. It may not be for all horror fans, as the slow pace and careful unfolding will frustrate some and enrapture others. The action and tension is built slowly, ramping up to a final act where you will be genuinely scared for Tsidi. Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending of Good Madam is excellent.

This notable and haunting social satire will begin streaming on Shudder, Thursday, July 14th. 

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