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

The African diaspora: Colonialism and displacement

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.