“Roma”: To Look Where Others Don’t

In our current cinematic era in which the technicolor spectacle of CGI dominates the box office, the choice of black and white cinematography in contemporary film suggests directorial deliberation and intentionality. It’s a choice the vast majority of viewers likely notice first when entering into the narrative of a film. And most of us, too, spend a few conscious or subconscious moments asking an important question: Why? We may decide it’s an aesthetic choice, drawing our eye toward the film’s visual composition. We may feel it’s a callback to the films of a previous age, a way to cultivate austerity and a sense of history. We may also view the use of black and white as a tool to achieve documentary-like “realness” and, thus, to invite the viewer more deeply into the lives of a film’s characters. Marketed as a semi-autobiographical film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, filmed in black and white, suggests to its audience all of these. It oscillates fluidly between panoramic scale and intimate moments, painting a vivid portrait of its central character, Cleo. Still, I question, to what end? Roma has become the most critically and commercially successful film to portray and star an indigenous woman, but at its close, I found myself ruminating: Is this story Cuarón’s or Cleo’s? And, either way, what does it mean for a white man to give voice to (and win accolades for) brown women’s experiences?

The eponymous Roma references the neighborhood in which most of the film takes place. Its central figure, Cleodegaria Gutiérrez (called Cleo and the fictional representation of Cuarón’s own nanny, Libo), is a Mexican indigenous woman employed as a domestic in a middle class Roma household. She bears the responsibilities of caring for and cleaning up after the family, comprised of 4 children, a beleaguered mother and an absentee father. Though there are brief interludes of Cleo’s social life outside of work (phone calls, movie dates, a dusty bus trip to the village of the father of her unborn child), work responsibilities keep Cleo busy from early morning to late at night. Even as the film shifts locations, moves through time, and every facet of Cleo’s world grows increasingly chaotic, her domestic work is the persistent through-line. Washing, childcare, Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. Cleaning, washing, government seizure of indigenous land (including her family’s). Childcare, cleaning, political foment and murder. Washing, cleaning, one death of a child, and the near death of two more.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Cleo and other indigenous domestics and farmers work frantically to gather buckets of water in order to quell a wildfire that erupts during a New Year’s Eve hacienda party. The forest burns in the background while these women and men run back and forth between forest and river, filling and dousing. The party’s guests, however, mostly hover around in their party finery, champagne glasses in hand, observing. In the film’s foreground, one man sings a Norwegian lullaby while dressed in a garish, bestial holiday costume. This scene, though one of the film’s most surreal moments, speaks toward a very real history of colonialism, appropriation, and oppression, and underscores the nature of the relationship between indigenous workers and the white Mexicans who own the land.

I watched this film as a part of the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema’s Tuesday Talkback series, a chance for community members to not only view the film, but to have discussion afterwards on their immediate reactions. Moderated by Kutztown University professor Bob Kilker, Roma’s talkback reiterated this point concerning labor, indigeneity, and class, with questions echoing that which I posed at the beginning of this article: to what end? Audience members made repeated references to Cleo’s perseverance and strength, her near-constant stoicism in the face of personal tragedy and social oppression. Cleo’s portrayal by actress Yalitzia Aparicio is incredibly compelling, her pain quietly rendered though deeply felt by the audience  — I confess to crying more during this screening than any other I can recall in recent memory. The film’s documentary likeness and its “semi-autobiographical” marketing invite us to think of it as more than a story and as evidence of a historically-erased life lived. In accepting his Oscar award for Best Director for Roma, Cuarón spoke of this erasure, saying: “As artists, our job is to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times where we’re being encouraged to look away.” He follows with “Muchas gracias á Libo,” thanking the woman who played a significant role in raising him and who inspired the film.

It’s worth noting that Cuarón has spoken about the difficulty in getting financial backing for the film, citing film studios’ reluctance to invest in a story centered on an indigenous woman, such that it was eventually released through an alternative distributor, Netflix. It’s worth noting, too, the male-only Oscar nominees for Best Director. (There have been two female nominees in the past 10 years. There has never been a female nominee of color.) Though I found the film incredibly moving, I also understand both its story and its making as a testament to how the legacy of colonialism winds its way into the micro and macro structures of our lives, such that these structures become invisible, particularly to those who hold privilege and power. Is it enough for Roma’s audience, an audience I assume to be comprised largely of the descendents of colonizers, just to look where others don’t, to be immersed in this moment of time, and then exit the cinema? Or does the film facilitate its audience going beyond mere looking, guiding us toward acknowledging and interrogating our own positions of privilege? Certainly structural injustice is at work in our own Southside neighborhood, evidenced in gentrification, economic stratification, and disparities in health and education. Construction projects around the city erect boundaries that literalize marginalization into geographic fact, despite vocal opposition from local residents. The very property the Frank Banko theater sits on, once part of the land of the Lenape tribe, is itself representative of colonial appropriation and “forced removal.” Erasure is not a remnant of history shrouded in black and white, but an ongoing act that surrounds and impacts us in our present day-to-day.

At Roma’s end, I found myself speculating on Cleo’s/Libo’s life, and what happened to her after the fade to black. Did she ever return to her family? Have a family of her own? Did she become a writer, an activist? But such a speculation is, perhaps, my own “looking away”, even as the film suggests a future that echoes into our present — Roma’s ending scene shows Cleo carrying a basket of laundry, walking up flight after flight of stairs, before disappearing out of view to do the washing.

Feature photo credit: IMDb

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