In Malakai’s short film “Souls,” light serves as a guide into a realm of existential transcendence.
“Souls” is a light-filled, cinematic meditation on memory, loss, lineage and legacy. From start to finish, the blue and green tones in the darker scenes and the dazzling brightness of the outdoor daytime shots mesmerize the viewer. For the filmmaker Malakai, light is a metaphor for the spirit energy that dwells inside all human beings. And in this short film, the central spirit light radiates from the grandmother figure Hattie (Johan Beckles), who shares with her granddaughter Kai (Nia Chanel) and the audience her own transition from life, death and afterlife — all while reassuring us that there is nothing to fear.
Throughout the film, light takes the form of stars in the galaxy, the sun and the light reflected in a loved one’s eyes. “Souls” opens and closes with the same image of a beautiful dark-skinned girl, Kai, holding her arms to the sky to frame the sun by forming a triangle with her hands. This gesture, combined with the repeated close focus on the irises of the main characters’ eyes, calls to mind the mystical meanings behind the “Eye of Providence” symbol — an eye inside a triangle with light radiating from the center that connotes a divine power protecting humanity.
This visual montage of eyes and triangles also evokes the knowledge, wisdom and wide-ranging contributions to world civilizations by people of African descent. From the architectural genius of the Egyptians who built the Great Pyramids of Giza, to the brilliance and bravery of medical doctor, engineer and astronaut Mae Jemison (the first African American woman to travel to space), Black intellectualism, intuition and insight are still alive and well and reflected through the souls of the film’s main characters Hattie, Kai and Sinea (Tabitha Brown).
The triangle symbol also recurs throughout the film. In addition to Kai framing the sun in the triangle of her hands, the entrance to the spacecraft in Kai’s backyard is triangular in shape, and the physical composition of the three main characters’ bodies in several stills signifies a symbiotic, triangular spiritual relationship between Hattie, Kai and Sinea. Their relationship evokes the biblical Trinity: God the Father, His son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Building upon this metaphor, “Souls” refigures the traditional Trinity through the female forms of three intergenerational characters: the mother, Sinea; her daughter, Kai; and Kai’s paternal grandmother, Hattie. The emotional core of this sparsely-narrated film is the love and wisdom that is shared among this divinely Black, female Trinity.
“Every star has a soul.”
The love shared between Kai and Hattie permeates the scene in which they gaze at the stars on a clear night, marked by Hattie’s equally lucid mind. In this scene, Hattie assumes her rightful role as an African elder educator — passing on her knowledge of cosmology and the metaphysical meanings of life to her granddaughter. As Kai marvels at the brilliance of the stars strewn across the dark sky, Hattie says, “It’s called a nebula … It’s like dust in the sky … Every star has a soul.”
Hattie’s words conjure the observations of leading astrophysicists who underscore the astonishing fact that human beings are literally made from stardust. In the 2014 documentary television mini-series “Cosmos,” scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously stated: “The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago … We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.” Hattie echoes this observation in her poetic words to her granddaughter, and her words offer a sense of comfort and hope to Kai, who is on her own spiritual journey to arrive at a place of peace regarding the imminent passing of her grandmother.
For Kai, her spacecraft serves as a vehicle of understanding her grandmother’s transition from life, to death, and to the next world. While watching this young, beautiful, dark-skinned girl’s journey through space, I was struck by the sense of this film’s overlapping themes and imagery with Barbadian American writer Paule Marshall’s classic 1959 novel “Brown Girl, Brownstones” and jazz musician Sun Ra’s experimental film “Space is the Place” (1974). A pioneering bildungsroman featuring a Black girl protagonist, “Brown Girl, Brownstones” endures as a poignant coming-of-age story of a daughter of immigrants growing up in Brooklyn, struggling within an ever-expanding world to form her own sense of self in contrast to her mother’s identity.
In many ways, Kai’s storyline should be viewed as an existential coming-of-age story for the youngest protagonist. Though Kai’s emotional struggle centers on a specific loss of a loved one, the arc of Kai’s narrative reveals the young girl’s growing sense of spiritual maturity, even given the time constraints of the short-film format. Kai embarked upon the journey to understand Hattie’s death on her own; she did not ask her mother Sinea to accompany her. And as Kai, dressed in white, runs through a bright desert landscape until she reaches the embrace of her grandmother, also resplendent in white, the procession of radiant souls who accompany Hattie are adorned in stunning, geometric-shaped crowns that beckon back to the intergalactic and Afrocentric attire worn by the band members of Sun Ra’s ensemble Arkestra.
Although “Souls” is a film about loss — Hattie’s loss of memory due to Alzheimer’s, her physical decline and eventual death — this is not another sad story about Black trauma offered up for voyeuristic consumption and entertainment. The overarching tone is more mystical and awe-inspiring than sad. The central role of light, literally and metaphorically, anchors the film and allows the main characters and the audience to enter a realm of existential transcendence.
Top Image: Still from "Souls," directed by Malakai.