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

The African diaspora: Colonialism and displacement

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.