________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV . . . . August 31, 2007


In the Name of the Mother and the Son.

Maryse Legagneur (Director). Yves Bisaillon (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
52 min., 28 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153E 9906 351.

[DVD includes the bonus film Young Mothers’ Voices (French Title: Petite Mères), directed by Judith Brès, 34 min., 26 sec.]

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

***½  /4


“St-Michel isn’t the only neighbourhood that’s dangerous. Lots of other neighbourhoods are dangerous. We have to stay here because the other neighbourhoods are too expensive. We’ve lived here for a long time. We feel at home here. Even if some people make us feel otherwise.


“Ever since you were little, you’ve dreamt of flying. You may not see them, but you have wings.  I see in you a man of strength. In your name, my son, I have placed all of my hopes.”


Directed and written by Maryse Legagneur, In the Name of the Mother and the Son focuses on the lives of two young men of Haitian descent—James Arnold Similhomme and Le Voyou—both of whom have grown up in the Montreal neighbourhood Saint-Michel. Legagneur’s film is not a sanitized narrative of impoverished communities that viewers may be accustomed to seeing in the mainstream media. Rather, Legagneur provides a personal and sensitive account of Saint-Michel as seen through James’s and Le Voyou’s specific experiences and the broader history of which they are a part.

     Devoting his life to creating music, Le Voyou tackles the entrenched prejudices and stereotypes that mainstream Canadian society continue to hold against black people. As for James, he is going to have a baby girl and is struggling to make ends meet. Besides depicting the financial and psychological struggles that these two men face, this film validates the hardships, sacrifices, and collective survival of their female predecessors who have immigrated to Canada in order to give their descendants a chance at a better life. The film makes several references throughout to this heritage and interweaves the narrative with whispered monologues of these predecessors whose voices remind James to remember his past and encourage him to fight for a better life for himself as well as for his community. Indeed, the film’s title, itself, affirms the passing and continuation of this heritage from mother to son, for both James and Le Voyou. Although they have different experiences, they share this collective history that extends back to their maternal predecessors in Haiti.      

The film makes references to the systemic prejudice and racism that impinge on black peoples’ lives in Saint-Michel. In doing so, the film questions the mainstream image that black people are more likely to be criminals, hoodlums, or drug users, and frames this image within the context of their daily struggles to remain optimistic and to survive. Graffiti, often represented as a deviant activity by mainstream media, is depicted in this film as a source of collective identity and self-expression. As le Voyou affirms, he would like people to see his graffiti as “a reflection, a mirror of a journey that’s summed up in two things: who I am and where I am from.” Similarly, the film contextualizes the formation of black gangs and suggests that the gangs are symptomatic of deeper problems that the mainstream public does not understand. For the black youth in the Saint-Michel neighbourhood, basketball helps them to pass the time and keeps them away from illicit activities. The extended clips of Le Voyou’s music included in this film are edgy in their articulation of black people’s lives and unapologetic in their criticism of mainstream society’s marginalization of and discrimination against the black community.

     At the same time that the film recognizes the negative impact of these societal representations and pressures upon their lives, it suggests that each black Canadian should take charge of their own lives and to attempt to better themselves, not just for their personal benefit, but also for their community’s sake. In the film, the barber who cuts Le Voyou’s hair praises Le Voyou for setting a good example for black youth as he exemplifies how a black person can succeed without resorting to crime. Thus, the film seems to suggest that black Canadians have an individual responsibility to achieve the best that they can with their lives, instead of simply blaming the larger society for their problems and doing nothing. In this sense, James and Le Voyou represent this mindset. In their own way, each of them survives, but the film does not glorify their success either. Although he is passionate about his music, Le Voyou acknowledges that it is difficult to survive as a musician. James is unable to find work easily, and the implicit, unanswered question is whether some of his applications are rejected because of his skin colour.

     Visually, the film will draw viewers in. The pink door with swear words on its surface, the shoes hanging on the wire in order to indicate that someone in the community has died, the windowless neighbourhood school that looks like a prison, and the drab colourless buildings are just a few of the visual shots that Legagneur uses to connote this neighbourhood’s pervasive mood of despair and isolation. At the same time, these gritty shots emphasize the community’s resilience and personalize the film’s depiction of this community’s lives. In doing so, it emphasizes effectively that black peoples’ experiences in Canada are not reducible to the simplistic images that often appear in the media.

     Other camera shots help to draw viewers into James’s and Le Voyou’s personal space and enhance the intimacy of their narrated stories. For example, viewers get an intimate portrait of James’ difficulties from the close-up camera shots of his face which connote his internal struggle to stay resilient and the precariousness that characterizes his life. There are also scenes of their daily lives, such as Le Voyou riding the bus with a few friends and James at home when he talks about his reaction after hearing about his baby girl’s birth.

     The music in this film also contributes to the atmosphere of co-existing and contradictory emotions experienced by this community’s people: sadness and happiness, cynicism and optimism, violence and peace. For example, the film’s references and images of flight connote a positive sense of looking ahead and striving beyond one’s circumstances, but they also suggest a sense of precariousness and unrealistic expectations. Set against an instrumental tune that is both melancholy and reflective, the image of the plane going across the darkened sky above the impoverished neighbourhood of Saint-Michel emphasizes the contrast between the dream and the harsh reality that James and the rest of his community face daily. Indeed, flying functions as a metaphor for both men’s desires to succeed. Even though they may be unsuccessful in their aspirations, it is the dream itself that is important for these men. For James, his dream is to give a good life for his daughter, whereas Le Voyou wants to make a difference through his music by validating his community’s experiences and challenging mainstream perceptions of it.

     Due to this film’s challenging and unsettling subject matter, it is best suited for people aged 14 and older. Although younger children can appreciate James and Le Voyou’s personal struggles, parents and teachers would need to contextualize the film. This film would be useful for teachers who wish to stimulate class discussion around topics such as prejudice and racism, the disjuncture between minorities’ daily lives and the representations of them in the media, and minorities’ historical and contemporary struggles to succeed in Canadian society. Providing some information about Haiti’s history, the mainstream media culture, rap and hip hop music, and Canada’s treatment of minority groups will help to frame the film and highlight its themes for students. The film will also work well as an instructional tool for undergraduate classes in sociology, history, and related areas.

     Accompanying the main film on the DVD is the short film, Young Mothers’ Voices, which touches on similar themes as Legagneur’s In the Name of the Mother and the Son. Directed by Judith Brès, this film provides an intimate and sympathetic look at four black mothers who became pregnant at a young age. Brès’s film provides a good companion piece to Legagneur’s film because it also deals with a topic from the perspective of Canada’s black community which tends to be absent from the mainstream media’s news.
     The four women in the film—Fabiènne, Nadia, Fanta, and Ludi—all became pregnant as teens. With varying amounts of support from their immediate family, each of them acknowledged the struggles of raising a child when they are so young, but they also mentioned the rewards of motherhood. For example, Fanta felt that her life has been given a sense of purpose because of her child, while Nadia mentioned that having a child has opened doors for her and has helped her to connect with other people. At the same time, these four mothers mention that their attempts to balance the demands of motherhood with their desire to enjoy their lives as young women are not always easy.

     Like Legagneur’s In the Name of the Mother and the Son, Brès portrays both a personal perspective and the broader societal context of her film’s topic. Oscillating among the four women’s viewpoints about their pregnancy and the struggles of raising their children, the film also reminds us of the larger societal context in which teenage pregnancy occurs. Besides the fact that teenage pregnancy is more widespread in economically and socially disadvantaged areas, “[t]he vast majority of teenage mothers in the Black community are single parents and live under the poverty line.” Because these mothers also have to deal with the stigma of being a young mother, a couple of them have enrolled in an alternative school where other people are pregnant and where, consequently, they would be more accepted. Like other ethnic minorities in Canadian society, the women in this film mentioned that they also have to deal with problems such as racism and gender representations of women as sexual objects.

     Viewers are drawn into these women’s experiences and perspectives by Brès’ direct camera shots of her interviewees, an approach which give viewers the impression that they are speaking directly to them, as well as by Brès’ depiction of their everyday circumstances. For example, Brès includes scenes of the women engaged in everyday activities such as buying food, caring for their children, buying clothes for themselves, and dancing. Like Legagneur’s In the Name of the Mother and the Son, this film would be appropriate for people aged 14 and up. In particular, older children will better appreciate the context in which teenage pregnancy occurs. Teachers could use this film in a health education or social studies class in order to discuss the struggles that young mothers face and how these are compounded by their cultural and economic backgrounds.

Highly Recommended.

Huai-Yang Lim has recently completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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