In the wake of the loss of her mother, filmmaker Nyasha Laing travels into the heart of the Jamaican countryside to research kumina, an ancestral ritual. The ancient practice, she learns, is a driving force in Jamaica's culture, yet its leaders were once discarded as witches.
Jamaica's post-colonial renaissance enabled Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy to share her practice with the world. Today, artists and followers are reimagining kumina, even as the mysterious world of spirit possession reveals divergent pathways to freedom, healing, and transformation. Barely five feet tall, Queenie held court in the halls of the Jamaican Prime Minister and on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as easily as she did in the “backabush” hills where she performed traditional kumina ceremonies to invoke and commune with ancestral spirits.
While other Afro-Jamaican folk and messianic traditions like Rastafarianism and Revivalism centred on male leadership and Christian principles, Queenie carried forth the legacy of women African spiritual leaders in Jamaica. In spite of the taboos inherited from racist colonial laws and cultural norms, Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy devoted herself to kumina. It is said that she came into her healing gifts as a child, learning Kikongo songs and words through spiritual immersion and possession.
Rare archival footage is interwoven with Queenie’s voice and story to tell the personal accounts of a generation of cultural postcolonial icons. Today, though waning, kumina is still the secret heartbeat of Jamaica. Its rhythms are publicly performed and stylized by the Jamaica National Dance Theater Company. Backstage the bodies of contemporary dancers defy the erasure of memory.
Rituals in the dark of night in St. Thomas and Queenie’s voice extends a symbolic invitation to the ancestors to rejoin us in spiritual discovery, no longer afraid to let go, be possessed, and reconnect. Ancestral folk practices and the art forms they have spawned reveal people resisting in the most expansive sense of the word. They serve as vehicles to freedom and healing. They represent the absence of fear and shame, something we need more than ever today.
Nyasha Laing is a documentarian, impact producer, writer and lawyer. Her independent storytelling – written and produced – explores identity, freedom and ancestral inheritance. It has been featured in the Pan-African Film Festival, Indie Memphis, Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, WOMEX, Yes Magazine, BBC World Service and the Art Museum of the Americas. Nyasha is a graduate of Yale University and NYU School of Law.