While the lack of black femme presence is theorized explicitly with respect to film genres and the canon of American cinema in the work of Kara Keeling, the ontological position of the black femme (whom Keeling understands to be both visually impossible and interdicted yet full of cinematic possibility) has long been a point of interrogation in Black Studies with an extensive critical genealogy. In Saidiya Hartman's book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, the loss of the black mother animates the historical imagination of transatlantic slavery, just as her loss is irreducibly felt in relation to its afterlife. In the work of Frank B. Wilderson III, there is an explicit rejection of the potential of the black woman within film, specifically the viability of her maternal function, insofar as the black mother remains categorically essential to the construction of black (masculine) subjectivity.
In light of the contradictory arc of this genealogy, the current task is not only to theorize the black maternal as an extension of the black femme, but to bring that position into view as the unthought. The black mother tends to be dramatized as the singular figure through which the cinema cultivates a distinctly black visual historiography. Even when placed under narrative erasure or withheld from view, the mother crystallizes a cinematic black aesthetic that fashions and envisions diasporic culture and forms of black collectivity as tied to a speculative and fraught filial genealogy.
The critical arc in black narrative cinema over the last ten years from Get Out to Pariah, to Mother of George, and finally to Moonlight insists upon black motherhood as integral to the aesthetics of form and the genre-making capacities of film. One could go so far as to claim that the elements of cinematic form that drive these narratives reflect aesthetic choices that have to do with coloration, shot position, and narrative flashbacks that are themselves bound up with and inflected through the haunting and cipher-like construction of black maternal figures. Furthermore, these films insist upon simultaneously marking and excluding the mother from the emotional drama of black subjective life and its complex and contradictory expressions of intimacy, which have as much to do with the breaking and splintering of familial bonds as bridging gaps. It is clear that the mother sutures these bonds; she is a scar, a visible reminder and remainder of a terrible historicity that cannot be assimilated into the idealization of the American family.