Ousmane Sembene, african cinema and the Western gaze
October 1, 2010
My Fantasia 2010: Preamble
November 24, 2010

Colonialism, displacement and the African diaspora

Africa has been a battleground for the anti-colonial struggle because the continent has been desired by foreign powers for centuries. One of the most disruptive colonial acts was the transatlantic slave trade, which uprooted Africans, separating them from their ethnic backgrounds, traditions, and identities. This relocation, on a massive scale gave birth to the African Diaspora, which, like the Africans themselves, perpetually tries to reconcile its African origins with its present circumstance.

Culturally, this dichotomy has produced several cultural works, especially in the cinema where militant movies are present. Although it is no longer relevant to speak of a general black race, I will study here the impact, in film, of colonialism on the African Diaspora as it relates to several ex-colonies.
In the sugar fields

Sugar Cane Alley (1983) depicts life in a Martinique plantation in the 1930s. In this story, Young José and his grandmother live in a small village where the only source of revenue is a local sugar plantation. All the villagers are worked there to the bone, leaving to wonder if there is a notable difference between slavery and freedom for these workers. Repeatedly, the plantation owners cut wages for insignificant affronts. To survive, the villagers are asked to put their young children at work; José’s grandmother forbids her grandson to work in the fields, refusing to perpetuate the colonial traditions that have kept the villagers in their present state. During colonial times, Article 44 of the Black Code, decreed by King Louis XIV, declared black slaves to be personal property, judged as inferior to their white masters, forbidden to learn to read or write. The different dispositions in the Black Code served to foster an inferiority complex in the slaves, to maintain slaves in the respect and fear of their masters, and ensure the master’s protection. But, these dispositions have also helped, in the post-colonial era, to keep blacks in a subservient state. In Sugar Cane Alley, the villagers have no choice; to survive, they need to work on the plantation, collect the sugar canes but, too busy surviving, they ignore the steps that would, in their case, convert survival into living. José’s grandmother is aware of that distinction. When she refuses to follow the colonialist imperative for her, she ensures that when he’s older, he will break the bonds of French colonialism and make something of himself.

Colonialism has kept itself relevant by dividing the colonized, segregating by skin tone or the establishment of a social hierarchy. In colonies like Haïti and Martinique, the social interactions were made complex, separating slaves, free men and the black-white offspring into categories with their own different social recognition. For example, there were at least six different types of mixed race (mulatto, quadroon, etc.), depending on whether the parents were of pure blood or of mixed race. Moreau de Saint-Mery wrote that, in the old Saint-Domingue colony, now Haïti, the skin colour prejudice was “the hidden coil of the whole colonial machine”. In Sugar Cane Alley, José’s best friend, Leopold, is a mulatto, son of the plantation’s owner. There is an evident hierarchy in how he is positioned higher up than the villagers, not only because his father is wealthy, but because he’s half-white. Even though he and his mother have been M. De Thoral’s, the plantation owner, family for years, while he lies in his deathbed, he refuses to recognize Leopold as his son, thinking of the social ramifications of such an act. Furious, Leopold runs away, later found stealing and punished for it.

One of the most interesting characters in Sugar Cane Alley is Moudouze and his stories about slavery and blacks. In that respect, he perpetuates the African griot tradition, transmitting the knowledge he has received to José, the new generation. As Cheryl Chisholm writes:

“The griot keeps the past alive in the minds and hearts of the group and, in the shaping of the recitation, the consensus of the group about its own identity evolves through time. The griot comments on the past in the light of the present and vice versa, communication not in the disengaged, third-person voice that has been the hallmark of conventional Western history, but in a manner fully engaged with the ongoing drama of the group.”

Moudouze stories about Africa are nostalgic, conveying a certain sadness in being separated from the mother country. His declaration that, once dead, he will be taken back to Africa, is beautifully moving, associating Africa to Heaven instead of its usual colonial depiction as hellish, savage and ugly. It recalls the Back-To-Africa movement of the nineteenth century which called for those of African descent to return home to their ancestor’s homelands. Moudouze is José’s connection to his roots in his ever-increasing involvement in the colonial world. But, as much as Sugar Cane Alley brings to the neocolonialist discourse, it also takes away from it. José can only escape the neocolonialist regime by adhering to it, accepting a bursary for a prestigious French school in Fort-de-France, the capital. José exchanges one form of subservience for another, seeking French education as a way to lift himself out of his situation. Here, the character falls into colonialism’s trap, equating, as Shohat and Stam put it, “the non-literate with the illiterate”. By following colonialist views of what constitutes knowledge, José perpetuates the colonialist diktats by which native culture, content, tradition and lifestyle are somewhat inferior to Europe’s. 
Song of Dissent: The African-American Perspective

The African-American perspective is a well-known one, seeing that its proximity to the Hollywood system has afforded them access to its chain of production and distribution, and it has profited in general from Hollywood’s global hegemony. Even though, initially, African-American films were shot mostly for blacks as a kind of counter-programming—The Birth of a Race (1918) was filmed as a response to the racist undertones of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—they intermingled with Hollywood, adopting its aesthetics and storytelling techniques, and with stars like writer-director Spencer Williams accepting roles in more conventional fare. The civil unrest of the 1960s had brought a widespread acceptance of an African-American, although they still had to live with racism and discrimination.

Produced and financed independently, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is the story of a ghetto hustler, raised in a brothel, who goes on the run after saving a Black Panther from two crooked police officers. It is poignant in its depiction of race relations in the United States, because of its use of broad-stroke characterizations and abstract-like narrative. In its characters, it resembles films from Ousmane Sembene like Xala (1975). Talking about Xala’s principal character, Sheila Petty writes: “As a typal character, El Hadji is defined by his function in the narrative and not by the psychology of his character in the classical Western sense”. The same could be said about the characters in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; they’re archetypes, owing less to specific character definition than generalization of character. The characters are pastiche figures, whose presence isn’t used to advance any plot, as in conventional Hollywood narratives, but bring the director’s point home, accentuate the outrage of the African-American spectator towards the injustice and discrimination they face every day. These archetypal depictions reduce the narrative to its simplest expression, its essence, which, as in Sembène’s films, more easily assimilated by the audience and galvanizes their collective desire for change. In that respect, the amateurish acting style only helps by further subverting the film into abstraction. In one scene, Sweetback’s friend, a swingers-nightclub owner who sells out Sweetback to the police, tells him that the police is looking for him. His demeanour is uneven throughout the scene, and he often seems to be grasping for his lines, but it all seems to contribute to the film’s mystique.

The same neocolonialist social interactions and taboos are present in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In a scene in the swingers club, Sweetback’s sexual services are offered to the present ladies, as everyone smiles and laughs. The smile and laughs stop when a young white woman volunteers and takes her top off in anticipation. The public, shocked, stays silent. Two police officers, in conversation with the club owner, turn serious and look to intervene, should things go too far. The unease is broken by the master of ceremonies, turning the whole thing into a joke:

Master of Ceremonies: This offer is only open … to sisters.

Later, Sweetback runs into a Hell’s Angels gang and proves his worth to them. His reward is one of them, a white gang member with whom he gets to affirm his sexual prowess. The sexual component of the movie is prominent and goes directly to the film’s revolutionary nature. Going against convention in form but also in content, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song adopts a raw and barren approach to its storytelling. The incendiary dialogues are a good example. Used to provide maximum impact, the dialogues are minimal but effective. Sweetback himself almost never talks; the character only has six lines during the entire movie. However, the other characters’ dialogues hit home and accentuate the filmmaker’s point. In one scene, searching for Sweetback, police officers find a black man and a white woman in a hotel. Their dialogue synthesizes the African-American experience:

Cop 1: It’s not him.
Cop 2: So what?

The demagogic tradition of colonial power is nowhere more evident as in the commissioner’s dialogue towards two Black police officers:

COMMISSIONER: You guys could be a real credit to your people if you brought those guys in.

Sweetback’s titular song is a hymn to revolt, as powerful as the fact that Sweetback ultimately escapes his pursuers: 

They bled your mama
They bled your papa
But they won’t bleed me.

In its use of narrative and formal strategies like its use of an avant-garde and New Wave aesthetic in its editing, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song positions itself not only outside the bourgeois art form but also in direct opposition to the sprawling imperative of neocolonialism, by its independent spirit and its subject matter. It is ironic, given the film’s position, that it was appropriated by Hollywood years later for the blaxploitation movie craze. But it is normal and buys into the colonial frame of mind. As Frantz Fanon wrote:

“Stinging denunciation, the exposing of distressing conditions and passions which find their outlet in expression are in fact assimilated by the occupying power in a cathartic process.”

Minimizing the impact of the revolutionary work by assimilating its claims, colonialism defuses the conflict between itself and the native and, in reality, only delays the inevitable, the eventual liberation of the native.

One of the greatest weapons used by the colonial machine in the annexation of foreign territories is religion. It becomes apparent in Brazil’s O Pagador de Promessas (1962). In it, Zé, a poor man from the Brazilian countryside, makes a promise to Yansan, the Candomblé equivalent of Santa Barbara, to carry out a pilgrimage to his church if he cures his donkey. Keeping his promise, Zé starts his pilgrimage and walks to the city, a cross on his back, only to be stopped by the church’s priest, Father Olavo, once arrived because of his beliefs in Yansan, a pagan god. The choice of this movie is problematic; most of the principal characters are not of African descent, although Black capoeira dancers and entertainers make appearances. The film takes its importance from the fact that Brazil is the country which houses the most African Diaspora. Although the film doesn’t portray Blacks, I would put forth it is still relevant to the Diaspora experience, especially as it pertains to religion and its use in colonialism. 

Historically, religion has played a significant role in the assimilation process. In Ceddo (1977), Sembene showed how Islam was used as a tool of colonialism. In Saint-Domingue, the French colony, The Black Code forced all white slave owners to baptize their slaves in the Catholic religion. All slaves were required to be taught the Bible, and especially the parts that pertain to the respect of authority. When the Haitian country was born out of a revolutionary war, the Catholic religion immersed itself back into the natives’ lives by equating its saints to Haitian voodoo gods. Once assimilated, the practice of voodoo became taboo as its practitioners were now accepted into the church. O Pagador de Promessas shows a similitude in the way religion was introduced in Brazilian life by equating Candomblé gods for its saints. It is one of the colonialism tactics, to break the native from his history, convince him that it has no value. On that, Fanon writes:

“Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectic significance today.”

This is what leads to the film’s drama. After assimilating the Brazilian Candomblé practitioners, the church now refuses to recognize the old gods, even though they are the same in thought. To Father Olavo, Zé is a pagan, bringing the devil and false gods into his church. He will only let Zé into the church if he renounces Yansan and adopts Santa Barbara. For Zé, the subtle difference between Yansan and Santa Barbara is imperceptible; they are one and the same, and he’s incapable of understanding the Father’s position. Zé’s showdown against the priest is symbolic of the native’s position towards neocolonialism. The tragic end serves to focus attention towards the unjust progression of the colonial imperative and galvanizes the Brazilian spectator against the oppressor, as the poor, disenfranchised and the capoeira dancers stand with Zé. The problem is endemic. Fanon continues :

“Colonial domination, because it is total and tends to oversimplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people.”

O Pagador de Promessas could be this Third-World film, as envisioned Fernando Solanas and Octavia Getino, a work which brings the audience to a point “where the masses sense the need for change”. It is, “in a word, a decolonization of culture”.

The films of the African Diaspora reflect some of the same observations as African films. Some are works of struggle, some are works of tradition and history, a repertory of the knowledge of those passed before. They differ in their perspective on belonging, as the African Diaspora seems to fight against the fact that it has been uprooted and is no longer on its native soil. However, there is a common denominator: the neo-colonialist influence. And, as long as the inequalities between imperialist powers and Third World countries persist, that presence cannot go away.


EMMANUEL, W.: La période révolutionnaire à Saint-Domingue et en France (1789-1804), Imprimerie Le Natal, Port-Au-Prince, Haïti, 1993.

SOLANAS, GETINA: Towards a Third Cinema, in New Latin American Cinema, Vol. 1: Theory, Practices, and Transcontinental Articulation, edited by Michael T. Martin, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, 1997, pp. 33–58.

PETTY, S.: Towards a changing Africa: Women’s roles in the films of Ousmane Sembene, in A call to action: The films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Petty, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1996, pp. 67–86.

SHOHAT, STAM: Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media, Routledge, London, 1994.

FANON, F.: On National Culture, in The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York, NY, 1968.