Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Amazing Grace

Directed by Jeta Amata

“We are humans not because of our ability to hate, but our capacity to love.”

One of my favorite hobbies as a film lover is watching the development of cinema in foreign countries, particularly those that do not have a long established film tradition. It is not an easy hobby. Many film makers in poorer countries are unable to get their work distributed. So it makes it very difficult for viewers in other countries to see films from areas like Micronesia, the Middle East, and Africa. But with the development of cheaper film-making equipment and the advent of the internet, many fledgling movie industries have been able to introduce some of their work to the outside world. One of the truly amazing success stories of the past few decades is of the rise of Nollywood.

Nollywood is a term coined to refer to the film industry of Nigeria. While many might snicker at its name, it is considerable harder to mock when one discovers that the Nigerian film industry is the third most lucrative in the entire world. Even more unsettling (at least to those who initially underestimated the strength of Nigerian cinema) is the fact that if countries are ranked in terms of how many films per year are produced, then Nigeria is the largest in the world, second only to India. It is believed that about 1,000-2,000 Nigerian films are released every year. They are usually very cheap. Each film usually costs between US$17,000 – US$23,000 and only takes about a week to film. This allows for a very quick turn-around for investors who can expect to sell thousands of copies in a short time. They are frequently filmed in hotels, homes, and offices that are temporarily rented out. Many of these are then advertised in the film’s credits. While some are filmed in local languages such as Hausa, Yoruba, and Edo, many are filmed in English, allowing Nollywood films greater access to international markets. In short, through a combination of thrifty filming techniques and business savvy production decisions, Nollywood has become one of the most powerful voices in the world of film.

And yet, so few have ever heard of Nollywood. Even fewer people have ever seen a Nollywood film. Why is this? Well, even though Nollywood films are widely distributed in many markets, they still have yet to make a decisive breakthrough in Western circles. The simple explanation is that, while Nollywood makes thousands of films a year, not very many of them are very good by Western standards. Many are sloppily made, poorly directed, and have the “extra’s curse.” The “extra’s curse” is when a film’s extras do not know how to properly act in front of a camera. And so, there are many instances of extras turning to the camera in the middle of a crowd and smiling, laughing, and sometimes even waving. Perhaps the directors and editors don’t notice. But I suspect that they do not consider it to be a big problem. Why should African extras act like Western extras?

And that is the inherent charm of Nollywood. We are watching a film industry build itself from the ground up. It is like watching a child teach itself how to stand up, how to walk, and then how to run. It may fall down a few times, but eventually it will get it right. The real fun begins when the child learns how to act on its own decisions. I cannot wait for Nollywood to reach maturity. Some say that it already has. But I disagree. I think that Nollywood has a long way to go. But once it arrives, it will produce some of the greatest cinema that the world has ever, or will ever, see.

So how can one get initiated into the world of Nollywood? Simple. Just watch Nollywood films. Of course, this can lead to some very trying problems. How do you get a hold of Nollywood films? There are many sites where you can download Nollywood films online, but I personally don’t trust websites that ask me to give them my credit card number. And even if you do manage to get a hold of a Nollywood film, how do you know if it will be any good? Well, I would like to introduce you to what might be the easiest Nollywood film for beginners (i.e. Westerners) to digest. That film is 2006’s The Amazing Grace.

Written and directed by Jeta Amata, The Amazing Grace deals with one of the most important themes in Nigerian cinema, religion. Nigeria is a land of many religions, but the two most dominant are Christianity and Islam. Nigerian films often concern issues of religious diversity and what role religion plays in life. The Amazing Grace deals with one of the most important aspects of religion: faith in times of trouble. To be more specific, how faith aided captured slaves during the slave trade. Indeed, much like the similarly titled but unrelated Amazing Grace by Michael Apted that came out the same year, The Amazing Grace deals with the story of Captain John Newton, a reformed slave-ship captain who would go on to write the most famous hymn in history. But instead of focusing on the operators of the trade, The Amazing Grace deals primarily with the slaves themselves. Through their actions John Newton is saved by grace. Not just any grace, but the amazing grace.

The story begins with an old slave telling a younger one about how they used to live in Africa. The year was 1748. The location was Calabar. She recalls how wonderful life used to be. “We were a happy and contented people. We were a free people, a people who made their choice on where to be and how to be.” But of course, things would change with the arrival of the white man. Natives start to disappear. Families are torn apart as relatives go missing. Then, it is revealed that the white men are kidnapping them. Of course, they don’t know this at first. The white men promise them jobs and better lives if they go with them. But when they don’t meet their quota, they resort to raiding villages. They are destined to be “freight” on the ship named The Greyhound, captained by John Newton. The narrator explains that “He was a man who had been brutally abused and enslaved by his own quest for adventure and wealth.” Now, John Newton did not take part in the raids at first. He was under contract with a man named Oliver Platt whose job was “to capture and see to the well-being of the slaves while John Newton steered the ship home.

Platt is a cold, cynical man. He casually rapes captive slave girls and acts perfectly natural when it is announced that they may lose a good half of their slaves on the voyage home. He is in constant conflict with John Newton who believes that they should be treated humanely, even if they are just animals. Of course, this changes after a slave saves his life when he falls overboard during a storm. As the narrator says, “He was destined by God to be saved by his prisoners…He was destined to receive the amazing grace.

Things change for John Newton. He starts to see the slaves as people instead of just animals. He finds out that one of his crew mates named Simmons has taught them to speak some rudimentary English. A charming conversation takes place here:

It seems that given time, you will have them reciting the Book of Common Prayer.” - Newton
More than that, Sir. I’d have them discuss it.” – Simmons

He asks Simmons about a song that they have been singing since their village was raided. Its tune is familiar to us as the melody of Amazing Grace. But to John Newton, it is just an entrancing song. He is told that it is a hymn that the villagers sing to beseech their god for grace. John Newton is surprised that they only have one god.

Simmons says, “There are many names, but only one God.

Later, there is a scene where one of the slave girls confronts him on the ship and asks about the fate of her people. He tells her that they will be sold and made to work. It is a painful scene. He has obviously not had the time to come to terms with his life-changing experience. All he can do is sadly continue the conversation. He finds out that her name is Ansa and that she was traded by her lover for drink. He tells her that his name is John Newton. She hears it as “John Johnnewton.” She asks him to let them go free. He says that he can’t. She tries another tactic: she asks him if he has a woman. He says just one. She laughs and says that he is weak because he only has one. He replies, “Where I come from the strength of a man has nothing to do with the amount of wives that he has.” They exchange playful glances. It is obvious that in another world they could have been together.

The rest of the movie may be difficult for Western viewers to stomach. John Newton teams up with Ansa to help him recruit more villagers for slavery. He promises that he will only make them come if they want and that they will be treated properly. Ansa convinces several village chiefs to send his people to America. Eventually, he is betrayed and is almost lynched for enslaving native Africans. Ansa comes to his defense and convinces the mob to let him live. They let him live on one condition: he must stop his “tribe” from enslaving their people. What happens next I will not ruin. It is a sad ending, but one tinged with hope for the future. Many probably won’t be able to appreciate it because they will still be recovering from the sight of seeing black people helping white people to enslave their own tribesman. But let’s consider this for a moment. We are dealing with African sensibilities, not Western ones. As I already mentioned, it was written and directed by a native African. Who are we to dictate how they should feel about their own history? The best we can do as outsiders is to try and understand the reasons behind their logic. Yes, we think that blacks shouldn’t enslave other blacks. But I think that the film was trying to make the point that if such things should happen, the prisoners should be treated with dignity. It is a matter of manners and respect, not morality. But what right do I have to interpret it? I could be completely wrong.

But that is the beauty of world cinema: we are introduced to different viewpoints and opinions. Despite the fact that many may find the ending discomforting, they cannot deny that The Amazing Grace is a film of monumental power. Not only is it a story told through the eyes of Africans, it is a story told through the prism of African traditions, culture, and values. It is a looking glass into the cultural melting pot of Nigerian society. As Nollywood continues to grow, and all indications point to the conclusion that it will, its directors and films will begin to be appreciated by foreign audiences. They will see accomplished masterpieces of distinctly African sensibilities. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t appreciate the films that helped Nollywood get there. The Amazing Grace is one such film. It is a film of great strength, great wisdom, and great courage about the bonds that link all humans together. It is a film that recognizes the amazing grace that reminds us that we are always children of God.

The editor would like to thank Elisabeth Cameron for suggesting this film.

You can watch The Amazing Grace here as of the time of writing this article:


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

صمت القصور (The Silences of the Palace)

Directed by Moufida Tlatli

In the King’s Palace a large group of women sit in a circle and cook. They idly chat away as they prepare large dishes of food. They laugh and gossip as the day goes by, as so many have before. But things are different today. There is an unspoken tension among the servants as they go about their tasks. Outside of the palace is the country of Tunisia, ruled by Ottomon Beys like their master Prince Sidi Ali. A French protectorate since 1881, they are in the midst of a war for independence that has been going on for two years. Soon, Tunisia will become a republic. But until then, the prince and his servants live cloistered lives. While the country is rocked by internal warfare, a similar revolution is taking place inside the palace. From as long as anyone can remember, the women who work at the palace have had two jobs: to keep house and to serve as sexual playthings for their master. One of these women, Khedija, has been one of Prince Sidi Ali’s favorites for years. When she is called to bring refreshments to his room, the women murmur that she will be gone for the rest of the day. We feel that she has long accepted her fate. But now, her daughter, Alia, is coming of age. Prince Sidi Ali has been starting to look at her as more than just a young girl. Determined to keep Alia from suffering her own fate, Khedija struggles to break the long line of tradition that will make her daughter nothing more than a toy.

Such is the story of The Silences of the Palace, one of the most important films to ever come out of the Arab world because it was the first to be directed by a woman. The director, Moufida Tlatli, constructs in her debut film a powerful story of female oppression and the women who must suffer it. The aforementioned Khedija and her daughter Alia are the central characters of the film. It is told largely in flashback from Alia as she visits the old palace ten years after the story takes place. She returned upon hearing news that Prince Sidi Ali had died. Once there, Alia must face her overbearing memories as she tries to grip with the reality of her life. At twenty-five, Alia is a singer and lute player. But her life isn’t a happy one. Her boyfriend is turning out to be a deadbeat and is making her have the next in what we assume is a long line of abortions. Although she is not a sex slave like her mother was, she is still subjugated to a life that is largely outside of her control. Learning the lute when she was a child was one of her happiest memories. But as she confronts her past, she realizes that the lute was a means of escape from one life into another.

The palace itself is rife with decay. Once, it was regal and beautiful, but now it reflects the lives of the women it once imprisoned. During Alia’s childhood, the women that she lived with did their best to keep her happy even though they lived in a constant state of self-loathing and shame. They are cut off from the outside world. One servant confesses that her cousin once tried to see her but was turned away. The only link that they have to the outside world is the radio where they hear updates on the nationalist movement and music. Here, Alia develops her love of music. She borrows her friend’s lute until she saves up enough to buy her own. Her teacher (and later lover) Lotfi tells her about the nationalist movement. Alia hopes that this will mean that she can escape from the palace. She develops a fierce, independent spirit. Unfortunately, her mother has a breakdown caused by the sorrow over her role in the palace. In one touching scene, Khedija tells Alia, “If a man touches you, run away.'' Khedija later tells her, “Your place is with me in the kitchen." Alia tries to convince her to leave together. She responds simply, "Where would we go? This is the only home I've ever known."

And here we learn about the silences of the palace. Indeed, the name of the film may seem confusing considering how loudly the women talk, sing, and shout. But the silence in question is a more insidious one: the one of acceptance concerning their fates as slaves. The women don’t speak up when one of their number is used or violated. What good could it do? They are silent because they have no voice with which to speak out. So they must rely on each other. One of the major themes of the film is the idea that women can and must stick together and support each other in times of hardship. But alas, that support can only go so far. It is a man’s world. They must accept this or perish.

Alia’s attempt to separate herself from the world that was destroying her mother is reminiscent of the struggle for Tunisian independence. One of the Tlatli’s most brilliant choices was to frame the Alia’s struggle with Tunisia’s. Both seek to rid themselves of the old guard. Both want freedom from the rules of the past. One is being fought by men. One is being fought by women. Of course, the men’s struggle eventually pays off. But for the women it is a different story. True, with Tunisia’s independence the old guard fell and it is safe to assume that the servants could leave. But instead of being free, Alia is a slave to another life.

And that is another point of silence. The film doesn’t offer any answers for how the role of women in the Arab world can be improved. Just as Alia looks back over her life, Tlatli merely regards her story and shares it with the audience. It is up to them to come up with a solution. For the women of the Arab world, at least of that time period, their opportunities were limited. But what could they do? How can women live independent lives and maintain their dignity? The film is silent. But it is vocal on one thing: women have the ability to support and help each other. Tlatli dedicated the film to her mother who was a constant source of support while she was making it. One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Tlatli making this film in the Arab world. Just like Alia, she struggled to find her own way. And like Khedija, one can only imagine how instrumental Tlatli’s mother must have been to the completion of the film. It’s funny how life can mirror fiction sometimes. Let’s hope that the future doesn’t have to mirror the past. For while the palace is old and rusted, it still stands. It is up to us to make sure that it stays empty.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Malcolm X

Directed by Spike Lee
The United States of America

Ossie Davis:
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.

I want to conduct a quick experiment for the benefit of all my readers. I want you to describe Malcolm X, the famous civil rights leader, what he believed in, and what he wanted to achieve in fifty words or less. Take as much time as you want. Now, after you have written your summary, look over it and see if you used the words racism, black supremacy, hate, and Islam/Muslim. The chances are that you used at least one of those words. And why not? In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, we are more willing to remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, people who fought the system using non-violent protests and messages of peace and love. When people think of Malcolm X, they are more willing to remember that he hated white people, thought they were devils, and believed, for a time, that black people should go back to Africa. But fewer people know of his change of heart after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 after which he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and began to believe that white and black people could, in fact, get along.

Was Malcolm X a controversial figure? Of course. He is easily one of the most controversial people of the Twentieth Century and in the entirety of American history. He preached peace and love in the African American community and incited hatred towards the white community. He believed in self-reliance, and yet he realized that if black people were to overcome they would have to become organized. It is impossible to think of Malcolm X without considering him either a saint or a sinner. And yet, it is this very mass of contradictions that made him such a legendary figure. And it is by embracing these contradictions that Spike Lee was able to create one of the greatest biopic films ever made in Malcolm X (1992).

The film divides Malcolm’s life into three parts, each of which is inhabited by a different incarnation of Malcolm. The first is Detroit Red, born Malcolm Little, a poor child born to a preacher who we assume was murdered by the Black Legion. He grows older and gets a job working as a Pullman porter. He gets involved with gangsters and gambling as his life begins to spin out of control. Eventually he is forced to flee to Boston to become a burglar. He eventually gets caught along with his friend Shorty (played by Spike Lee) and is sentenced to a ten-year prison term. Of course, they were not sentenced because they were caught stealing. They were sentenced because they were unfortunate enough to get caught dating two white women.

It is in prison that the second part of the movie begins and we are introduced to Malcolm X. Through the guidance of a fellow inmate, Baines, a composite character of people Malcolm X knew in prison, he converts to the Nation of Islam. He becomes a devout disciple of their leader, Elijah Muhammad, who molds him into a fiery speaker. He even gets married to a fellow member of the Nation of Islam, Betty X. It is here that Malcolm’s true motivations become clear to the audience. Yes, he wants Civil Rights. Yes, he wants segregation from white society. And yes, he believes that all white people are the devil. But his true desire is to bring a sense of confidence and strength to the black community. He sees the Nation of Islam as a means to an end where the black community is self-sufficient and has respect for itself. The scene that really brings this idea home is when meets West Indian Archie, the Harlem gangster who made life for Malcolm so miserable, alone in a rundown project. He has long since been decimated by drugs and alcohol. He speaks and moves as if stricken by cerebral palsy. The two embrace and we see a lot of determination and sorrow in Malcolm’s face. To him, West Indian Archie is just one of the multitudes of blacks oppressed and destroyed by white society. To him, it is white people’s fault that West Indian Archie is like this. If they can organize and cut themselves off from the white devils, then they can be safe.

But soon he discovers that his idol, Elijah Muhammad, has been having affairs with his secretary. Things aren’t made any better by the fact that the Nation becomes jealous of his exposure in the media. Suddenly the possibility of Malcolm becoming more important than Muhammad becomes a reality. Labeled a threat by his community, it takes a pilgrimage to Mecca to rediscover himself. It is here that El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz emerges humbled by the discovery that Muslims come from all walks of life and are made up of all colors. This leads to him breaking away from the Nation of Islam which of course leads to his tragic assassination.

I don’t want the rest of this review to be littered with cross-references concerning the historical validity of Lee’s film. Suffice to say that Lee made it his mission to create a fair and balanced version of Malcolm X. True, he was a great man. He did many great things. But he was also a flawed man. One of the most shocking aspects of the film is how Malcolm still acts cruelly towards some people. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a white woman approaches Malcolm as he prepares to lecture at a university. She confesses that she wants to help his cause. She claims that she isn’t motivated by any sense of guilt, but that she wants to aid him in his quest for civil rights. She asks if there is anything that she can do to help. He looks at her and declares that she can do nothing. Is that a look of joy in his face? Of triumph? Another frequent problem with Malcolm X was his views towards Christianity. He follows the Nation of Islam’s belief that it has failed the black community. But pay attention, the first person to reach out to him in prison is a priest (whom Malcolm mocks) and the last person to talk to him before he enters the Audubon Ballroom is an old woman who tells him that Jesus is with him (whom he dismisses). And what about the scene where he watches footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and his peaceful protesters marching in Alabama? Despite their suffering and toil he still preaches that it is the Nation of Islam that will save the black community.

It reminds me a little of Spike Lee himself. The man has never been very subtle when it comes to his views on black culture and how it is portrayed. In fact, the reason why he even got to direct the film is because he protested the original director (Norman Jewison, director of In the Heat of the Night (1967)) on the basis that he was white. Maybe his methods are not necessarily the best, but he has the best intentions in mind. These come forward in this impossibly realized film about one of the most important figures in the advancement of the black cause. It is a powerful film that develops its central character with incredible ease (in no small part to the Oscar nominated performance by Denzel Washington) and believability. The audience never thinks that Malcolm X is predestined for greatness. We watch him earn it in the same way that he wanted to see his people earn their own rights for freedom and liberty. The figure on the screen is not so much a character, but a man. In other films, this would be a problem. But here, it is the defining stroke of genius that propels it into the stratosphere.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yaaba (Grandmother)

Directed by Idrissa Ouédraogo
Burkina Faso

Director Idrissa Ouédraogo once said that his 1989 film Yaaba was, “based on tales of my childhood and on that kind of bedtime story-telling we hear just before falling asleep." And indeed, viewers may find Yaaba as a reminder of the stories that we are told by our parents over glasses of warm milk and comfy covers. A simple morality tale, Yaaba is about a pair of young children who defy social conventions all in the name of doing what’s right. It exists in its own world, devoid of any kind of western influence. By shunning everything but the essential elements of the story, it becomes a timeless film that could have taken place thousands of years ago or centuries into the future. Josef Gugler perfectly sums it up by writing:

Nothing takes the viewer to pre-colonial times, nor is there any indication of a colonial presence. But if the action is contemporary, the village appears altogether isolated. There is no trace of government, taxes, schools, or clinics. Market relations do not reach beyond a big tree within walking distance where a few people gather with local products, even though coins are common: the diviner demands them, the beggar collects them, the children wager them.

For all immediate purposes, the village exists for one purpose: to serve as the backdrop for the story.

The story revolves around two children, a young boy named Bila and his cousin Nopoko. We first meet them in a graveyard where they offer water to their mother’s grave. It is there that they first meet Sana, an old woman who has been cast out of their village. Nopoko is obviously worried. After all, Sana was thrown out of the village because she was believed to be a witch. But Bila tries to calm her down by suggesting that they play a game of hide-and-go seek. Nopoko closes her eyes, counts to twenty, and starts to look for him. Unfortunately, he is nowhere to be found. But then Sana appears and silently points out where he is hiding. The two exchange a playful smile.

The rest of the film concerns the two children and their relationship with Sana. Sana is a decrepit old woman who lives in a small shack on the outskirts of town. How she survives by herself is a mystery. But we imagine that it must be a difficult life. After all, we see a group of children taking turns throwing rocks at her. One of them hits her in the head. Her reaction is to clasp her head and mournfully walk away. This has not been the first time that she has suffered such abuse and she has no reason to expect that it will be the last. So when Bila steals a chicken to give to Sana, she suspiciously regards him. She asks if he has stolen it. Does she suspect a trap or a trick? Could she be punished for eating it? But Bila lies and says that he didn’t. Quickly, her face lights up and she accepts the gift. They eat the chicken together and enjoy each other’s company. Bila calls her yabaa and compliments her cooking. Sana pauses for a moment and says that was the first time that anybody ever called her that. She smiles warmly and the two laugh. We suspect that this is the first time in a while that she has had any reason to do so.

But their happiness is short lived. Soon, Nopoko comes down with tetanus after she is accidentally stabbed during a scuffle with other boys from their village. Her family insists that it is malaria. However, as time goes by and it becomes apparent that Nopoko is getting worse, they hire a witch doctor who announces that Sana has stolen Nopoko’s soul. So the villagers depart to get rid of Sana. They burn her shack only to find that she has already left. So begins Sana’s journey to find medicine for Nopoko. She brings back a medicine man who knows how to treat tetanus. However, they are both expelled from the village. Thankfully, Bila’s mother secretly sends for him. He gives them a medicine which cures Nopoko of her disease. Whether or not a tetanus infection can be cured with a potion is up for debate. But the point is that Sana went out of her way to save Nopoko’s life only to be ostracized from the village.

The children visit her hut only to discover that she has died. They are later told that there was no real reason that Sana was so universally hated. The only thing that she did wrong was being an orphan after her mother died in childbirth and her father died of grief. The movie ends with Bila and Nopoko burying Sana. The astute watcher will realize that the first and last shot of the movie is the same one of Bila chasing Nopoko into the distance after eloping. And so life goes on. The memory of Sana will live on in them. We can only hope that the movie’s lesson has been learned by both the characters and the viewers.

In addition to a masterpiece of simple storytelling, Yaaba is a miracle of economic filmmaking. The entire production cost only about one million dollars. Ouédraogo would help cut costs by being both writer and director of the film and shooting it in Tougouzagué, a village near his birthplace. This allowed him to cast local villagers and relatives. His directing style was simple: act natural. It works magnificently. Ouédraogo would go on to become one of Africa’s most important filmmakers along with the legendary Ousmane Sembène. In 1990 he won the Cannes Special Jury Prize for Tilaï and the FIPRESCI Award for Yam Daabo (1986).

Idrissa Ouédraogo

But probably the best honor that we can bestow upon him is to recognize his genius for film-making. Not many directors can evoke so much with so little as Ouédraogo. His film Yaaba is a testament to this. It is a simple story that evokes feelings and emotions that vastly outweigh the sum of its parts. It is a film with a distinctive African voice, and yet the story itself could be retold throughout the world in all civilizations and cultures. It is a story of the innocence of youth, the wisdom of old age, and the hope for a better tomorrow. As one villager in Yaaba keeps telling himself, “That’s life.”


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Emperor Jones

Directed by Dudley Murphy
The United States of America

On April 9, 1998, a worldwide celebration took place. The cause for the international jubilation was the birthday centenary of a man named Paul Robeson. A singer, athlete, writer, lawyer, actor, and tireless activist for social justice, Paul Robeson would go down as one of the most important and influential African-Americans in history. On his aforementioned birthday, he was honored with art exhibitions, documentaries, and even a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. This was a man who defied simple definitions. As a singer, he popularized Negro spirituals to a wide audience. As a stage actor, he was the first black actor of the 20th century to perform the leading role of Othello on Broadway. As a film actor, he fought studios and directors for roles that portrayed African-Americans with dignity and respect. And yet, despite all of his contributions, he has virtually disappeared from the American consciousness. This largely has to do with the fact that he was a victim of the Red Scare because he spoke out against fascism and racism in the US. As a result, the US government and media almost completely wiped him from the public memory. But his legacy remains as one of the great pioneers of stage and screen and an invaluable figure in the development of social equality and justice for all mankind.

So how can we do his legacy justice? As a film aficionado, the best that I can do is to bring attention to his great work in the cinema. Robeson was involved in 16 films from 1925 to 1954. Many of these films were British productions, as Robeson moved to England in the late 1920s with his wife. From the very beginning his films were radically charged. His first surviving film, Body and Soul (1924), was a silent American production where Robeson played a preacher with a split personality. His second was an experimental film shot in Switzerland entitled Borderline (1930) which dealt with an interracial affair in a small European village. But it is his next film that I want to bring attention to. An incredible story about a man who made himself a king, The Emperor Jones (1933) would go down as one of Robeson’s most iconic, and powerful, roles.

The film is an adaptation of the play by the same name by Eugene O’Neill. It originally opened on Broadway on November 1, 1920 where it ran for 204 performances. It has an important place in theatrical history as its leading role was performed by Charles Gilpin. This was the first time that an important black role was played by a black man and not a white man in black-face. So maybe it was destiny that Robeson would eventually play the character in the 1925 revival.

The play follows a man named Brutus Jones who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes, flees to a Caribbean island, and declares himself the emperor. It is mostly told in flashback as he flees through a forest trying to escape his former subjects who rose up against him. For the film adaptation, about half an hour of original material was added to Brutus’ back-story in order to flesh out his character. Of course, this resulted in the movie slightly deviating from the original story. In his autobiography, Robeson even admitted that he regretted making the film because it was so different from the play. But for the audience, the additional material creates a much clearer portrait of the central character and makes his rise and fall as emperor even more interesting.

The opening shots of the film present the audience with an African ritual dance which dissolves into a Baptist Church deep in the American South. It has been suggested that this comparison is an act of racism on the part of the filmmaker, but I do not buy that. I see it as a celebration of black culture and its natural progression into American society. But that’s just my interpretation. In any case, we find Robeson being blessed by his congregation as he gets ready to depart for his job as a Pullman Porter. Since that job helped thousands of African-Americans climb the social ladder in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the news is cause for celebration. As his first talkie, it is here that we hear Robeson’s legendary bass-baritone voice boom across the screen for the first time. He receives the congregation’s well-wishes and leaves for his new career.

However, he is quickly corrupted by the big city. It is not long before he accidentally kills a man named Jeff over a rigged crap game. After being arrested, he is sent to work on a chain-gang. An interesting side note is that while on the chain-gang we see Robeson without his shirt on. While nobody today would even bat an eye at such a display, in the Thirties this was unheard of presentation of male nudity. The fact that it is a black man makes the scene even more provocative. One source points out that the director uses this scene to highlight Robeson’s sexual power and to take advantage of the cultural stereotype concerning the “libidinal power of black men.” Maybe so, but I believe that the most fascinating moment of the chain-gang scene is where Robeson kills a white guard who was torturing another convict. Allow me to explain: this was the first time in the movies that a black man was shown killing a white man. Should it come as any surprise that it was edited out of the original cut?

With even more blood on his hands, Robeson escapes and gets a job working on a steamer heading for the Caribbean. One day, he spies an island and jumps ship. He swims to the island only to discover that it is not only inhabited, but it is ruled over by a black despot who gets his wares from a man named white merchant named Smithers. They strike up a partnership and eventually take over the island, overthrowing its leader. Robeson does this by loading all of the imperial guard’s guns with blanks. When he announces that he is overthrowing the old regime, they fire at him only to discover that he is invincible to their attacks. He declares that only a silver bullet can kill him. With nothing standing in his way, he begins his reign as the “Emperor Jones.”

His rule is short-lived, however. The power of office quickly goes to his head. In time, Robeson becomes an even worse tyrant than the ruler that he dethroned. Eventually, his subjects abandon him and gather in the forest to organize an attack on him. In his throne room, Robeson hears the sound of drums. They start off quietly at first, but they quickly get louder and louder. Frightened, Robeson flees into the forest where he delivers a twenty-five minute monologue taken from O’Neill’s play. If Robeson was dissatisfied with how the film changed the original play, then we can see his love for the role in this extended scene where he slowly goes insane. He begins to hallucinate and see the different people that he has run into over the course of his life: his wife, his old Baptist congregation, Jeff the gambler, the chain-gang guards, and his former subjects. With each hallucination, his grip on sanity gets weaker and weaker. He apologizes to the men that he killed, he begs his old preacher for salvation, and he even begins to mime working on the chain-gang. Eventually, he begins to fire his only pistol at the visions. We count the number of shots that he has left: five, now four, now two, now one. And all the time there is the sound of the drums, the inescapable drums. His plight ends as he circles the island and runs straight into the men that he had oppressed for so long….

If The Emperor Jones was cut down so that only the last twenty-five minutes were left, it would still be one of the most powerful performances of the Thirties. The Academy Award for Best Actor in 1933 was given to Charles Laughton for his portrayal of King Henry in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and that was a fine performance, to be sure. But the great insult to the world of cinema was not that Robeson didn’t win the award, but that he wasn’t even nominated. Of course the reason that he wasn’t nominated was the fact that he was black, but I wonder how much the story of The Emperor Jones bothered the academy. You didn’t see black characters portrayed with so much dignity in the Thirties. You especially didn’t see black actors talk down to white actors the way that Robeson lorded over the cowardly Smithers. But times have changed. With great early black actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, it’s easy to forget how black actors were discriminated against. Maybe if more people saw the works of Paul Robeson, they would understand how far black actors have come. For it is impossible to watch a performance by Paul Robeson and miss his pain, his devotion, and most importantly, his dignity in the face of oppression.


Monday, February 1, 2010

La Noire de… (Black Girl)

Directed by Ousmane Sembène

Diouana: “Back in Dakar they must be saying: “Diouana is happy in France. She has a good life.” For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom.”

Sometimes, on a whim, I like to imagine what would happen if the Catholic Church canonized filmmakers. The idea isn’t too far-fetched. After all, the Church already has patron saints for painters (St. Luke), actors (St. Genesius of Rome), and even singers (St. Gregory the Great). So who would be the patron saints for film directors? I usually like to think that each country has a patron saint. For France, I would choose Robert Bresson or Francois Truffaut. For Italy, it would be either Federico Fellini or Roberto Rossellini. Japan would get to pick from Kurosawa, Ozu, or Mizoguchi. As for America, that could be tricky. Common sense would say Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, or D. W. Griffith, but I like to imagine Orson Welles or Martin Scorsese. Hey, it’s my list. They don’t have to be dead or even Catholic to be my choice.

I guess that my point is that every film-making culture has a director whose work is so important, so vital, and so influential that it borders on the sacred. Their work is a wellspring of cultural identity and pride which inspires their fellow countrymen to pick up movie cameras and to create great films. So how do we choose who to venerate? For countries that have a long history with the cinema, it can be difficult. But other times, the answer is obvious. Such is the case with Africa and their great godfather of cinema, the eternal Ousmane Sembène.

Ousmane Sembène

Born in Senegal in 1923, Sembène would spend his life documenting the plight of his fellow Africans. He started as an author, writing novels about the evils of colonial governments and later about corrupt African governments. His books would establish him as one of Africa’s greatest writers, along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. But he began to realize that if he wanted to reach a wider audience, he would have to expand beyond literature. After all, many of his novels remain un-translated, thereby limiting their appeal abroad. So, at forty years old, he decided to become a filmmaker.

His first feature film, La Noire de…, was the first feature length film released by a sub-Saharan African director. Essentially, with this film, Sembène became Africa’s first director. Jonathon Rosenbaum argues in his book Movies as Politics that La Noire de… was, “the symbolic genesis of sub-Saharan African filmmaking, at least to the extent that the authorship belonged to a born and bred African.” With it, Sembène proved to the world that Africa had its own distinct voice in the world of cinema.

The film centers around a young Senegalese woman from Dakar named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who is hired by a French couple to be their nanny. She moves to France to live with the couple. Moving from Africa was a difficult decision, but she is enthralled with the opportunity of living in France. She has dreams of buying expensive clothing with her wages. Until she gets her first paycheck, she even walks around in spike heels. But it soon becomes apparent that something is amiss.

There are no children at the couple’s house. At least, not at first. It seems that they are studying abroad. In the meantime, however, Diouana is made to do all kinds of housework. She has to sweep, scrub, do laundry, brew coffee, and all other manner of tedious chores. At one point she is even made to cook “African food” for the couple’s friends. She removes as much of the spices as she can, but alas, it is still too spicy. It dawns of Diouana that she was never meant to be a nanny. Instead, the couple have essentially bought a maid. But then again, the promise of a paycheck goes unfulfilled. In reality, the couple has purchased a slave.

They begin to order her with a bell. The housewife transforms into a tyrant, screaming at her for things like not making the coffee for her before she woke up. She doesn’t let her eat until she does her work. Diouana quickly becomes disillusioned with her job. Refusing to let herself become their servant (or dare I say slave) she slashes her throat in the bathtub. Her tragic end is only punctuated by the French man traveling back to Diouana’s home with the intent of paying her family her back wages. They refuse his money. By refusing the money, Diouana’s position as an unpaid servant is confirmed. Confused, the man walks back to his ship.

A short film (only clocking in at 65 minutes) it nevertheless remains a powerful piece of cinema. It speaks to the powerful topic of post-colonial identity. While many readers may be surprised at Diouana’s treatment, I would remind them that this was only a few years after Senegal formally declared its independence from France. Could it be that the couple was using Diouana to fulfill their subconscious need for superiority over their lost territory? It’s very possible. But I would propose another interpretation of the film. Instead of hiring Diouana as an act of revenge, I believe that they were hiring her because she was exotic. Let’s look at the facts.

She prepares African food for their friends. They wanted to impress them with their worldliness. Of course, this is foiled by the fact that the food was cooked in a way that was sensitive to their tastes. But no matter. The guests go on about impressed they are. At one point, one of the guests stands up and addresses Diouana, saying that he has never kissed a black woman before. He grabs and embraces her. Satisfied, he sits back down. To them, Diouana is an attraction. The couple is more than happy to show her off.

But then we need to examine a recurring symbol in the film: an African mask that Diouana gives the couple when they hire her. Overjoyed at her new position, she grabs a mask from a small boy in the street of her village and presents it to her new employers. They look at it, admire it, and announce that it appears to be the real thing. They proudly display it upon their wall for all to see. They don’t realize that it is a worthless mask. To them, it represents exotic Africa. Repeatedly throughout the film, it stares down at Diouana as she descends further and further into depression over her new lot in life. Finally, after she cannot take it anymore, she takes it off the wall. When she kills herself in the bathroom, the mask sits there in the room with her.

Anyone who sees La Noire de… will instantly realize the handiwork of a master craftsman. Perhaps it was because Sembène started as a director when he was so old that he was able to create such magnificently realized films. I like what Roger Ebert said about Sembène when he wrote about his last film, Moolaadé (2004), “[Sembène] must have lived enough, suffered enough and laughed enough to find the wisdom of age.” I couldn’t agree more. Even when we go back to his earlier work like La Noire de… we find a man who is in complete control of his story and what he wants to say. It is emotional without being melodramatic. It has a message without seeming preachy. All he does is tell a simple story. What else could we expect from the great Saint Sembène?

Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1997). Movies as Politics. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. pp. 284.