The African King

Wrestling with the complex legacy of Ousmane Sembene
by Richard Porton  posted September 11, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

While the tendency of critics and film historians to label the late Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene “the father of African cinema” might seem slightly glib, even a casual assessment of recent African filmmaking confirms that the influence of key Sembene films such as Black Girl, Mandabi, and Xala has indeed been far reaching. Perhaps the key to Sembene’s complex appeal to filmmakers who continue to wrestle with his legacy resides in his dual focus on both the inequities of Western colonialism and the tendency of African elites to internalize the same colonialist mentality, replete with corruption and class stratification, which inspired a wave of liberation movements in the post-World War II era.

For a seemingly straightforward political director, however, the ideological and stylistic contours of Sembene’s career are not easy to pin down. Although a few of his more notable films such as Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye are impassioned denunciations of French imperial arrogance, Xala and Moolaadé are equally fiery broadsides aimed at indigenous African rapaciousness and hidebound sexist mores. Sembene has been alternately labeled a neorealist, an avatar of a new “epic cinema” harnessing Eisenstein’s concept of a collective protagonist, a Brechtian ironist, and a mordant social satirist.

These contradictory motifs in Sembene’s body of work can be traced to a nuanced progression in his work from a preoccupation with the psychic wounds of colonialism to more expansive efforts to employ African oral traditions in films that function as spurs to dialogue and social change. In order to address pressing African needs, Sembene’s earliest films appropriate disparate European cinematic traditions. Borom Sarret (1964), his path-breaking short, reflects the one-time dock worker and trade unionist’s leftist sympathies as well as his debt to neorealism. While there are clear affinities between the plight of the eponymous protagonist and Antonio’s downward spiral in Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Sembene’s tale of a destitute cart driver who loses the vehicle that earns him his livelihood is both more militant and less concerned with life-affirming humanist bromides.

Black Girl (1965), Sembene’s brief first feature, also radically transmutes an offshoot of European art cinema. Freely adapted from Sembene’s own short story, this disturbing parable—like some French New Wave and Italian post-neorealist landmarks— explores an alienated protagonist’s slow mental deterioration. But it is unlike its European precursors in that the gradual despair of Diouana, a young Senegalese maid employed by a middle-class couple from Antibes, is explicitly politicized. Expecting to lap up the glamour of the Riviera, Diouana instead finds herself cooking and cleaning around the clock, a virtual prisoner who must endure the racist taunts of the couple’s smug dinner guests. Like Frantz Fanon, the most influential anti-colonialist polemicist of the 20th century, Sembene believes that the damage the West imposed upon Africans was as much cultural and psychological as economic.

The Fanonian belief that decolonization often paradoxically breeds a compulsion to mimic the behavior of the deposed colonizers surfaces in an overt and fascinatingly artful fashion in several of Sembene’s subsequent films. After departing from the conventions of strict realism in Emitai (1971), Xala is, in many respects, a breakthrough film. The intricate plot revolves around the humiliating downfall of El Hadji, a prosperous Senegalese businessman who finds himself impotent after enduring a beggar’s angry curses. Rarely has a film fused sexual politics and a critique of power and privilege with such finesse and acerbity. El Hadji’s loss of sexual prowess also strips him of his allure as a mover and shaker in newly independent Senegal. As in many of Sembene’s films, linguistic differences take on political ramifications. When El Hadji chides his daughter Rama for speaking Wolof, the language spoken by the Senegalese masses, instead of French, the film’s indictment against this self-satisfied and corrupt representative of the African “new class” is sealed.

Unlike either Hollywood movies or European political cinema, Sembene’s films refuse to choose between a focus on the individual or an exaltation of the collective will. This could be viewed as a distinctively African strategy since the continent’s communal ethos has traditionally nurtured an idiosyncratic conception of the role of the individual within a greater collectivity. This dynamic culminates in Moolaadé (2004), Sembene’s final film—a work that synthesizes two of his cherished themes: an impassioned advocacy of female solidarity and a disdain for bureaucratic ineptitude and rampant greed. On one level a stirring condemnation of female genital mutilation, Moolaadé is anything but a one-note didactic exercise. Beautifully shot on location in a village in Burkina Faso (an ancestral anthill and an anthill-shaped mosque become iconic components  of the mise-en-scène), the film is notable for elaborating a supple version of the collective, or choral, protagonist. Far from Eisenstein’s intellectualized notion of characters subsumed within collective imperatives, Moolaadé’s village milieu allows for a spirited dialogue on female circumcision in which fully formed characters (who, in Renoir-esque fashion, all have their reasons for either supporting or opposing the practice) express the full spectrum of African society’s views on this incendiary topic.

Given Sembene’s preeminent place within African cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that his legacy has inspired a pronounced “anxiety of influence” among the generation of African directors that followed him. Certain filmmakers such as Med Hondo and Gaston Kaboré have unapologetically paid homage to Sembene. Yet a director such as Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo confines himself to concerns that appear nearly folkloric compared with Sembene’s radical output (the film scholar N. Frank Ukadike asserts that Ouedraogo’s films can be viewed as “deliberately eschewing the traditional films of protest initiated by the pioneers” and opt “instead for…commercial viability”). And other prominent figures like the acclaimed Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, insist on maintaining a respectful distance from Sembene’s spirit and influence. Yet as long as 25 years ago, Haile Gerima, the Ethiopian-born, U.S. based filmmaker confessed that “Sembene . . . has had an impact on me and on a lot of African filmmakers although they may, egotistically, not admit it.”

In the case of Djibril Diop Mambéty, arguably the most important, and radical, African director to gain worldwide recognition after Sembene, traces of the elder figure’s rhetoric and aesthetic stance surface despite seemingly vast differences in style and tone. While Mambéty’s early short Badou Boy is frequently viewed as his personal reworking of Borom Sarret, Annett Busch and Max Annas, in their introduction to a recent anthology of Sembene interviews, express the equally common view that Sembene represents a “realistic” tendency in African cinema while Mambéty personifies a less “analytical,” more “poetic” and modernist cinematic strain. In fact, in 1995 I wrote that the style favored by Mambéty in his seminal film Hyenas (1992) “is far removed from earlier examples of African social realism, whether exemplified by the novels and films of Ousmane Sembene or Safi Faye’s synthesis of documentary and autobiography.” On closer examination, however, although the stylistic chasm between Mambéty and Sembene’s work is still indisputable, I’d argue that the opposition between a “realistic” Sembene and an intransigently “modernist” Mambéty is slightly simplistic.

A more nuanced perspective would concede that, temperamental and stylistic differences notwithstanding, both Mambéty and Sembene’s films blend realistic and modernist proclivities. Xala, which depicts El Hadji’s sexual malaise with a near-Buñuelian sense of the absurd, is far from undiluted realism and Hyenas, despite its allegorical impetus and a highly stylized use of montage, also depicts daily life in a Senegalese village with affectionate verisimilitude.

Hyenas’s mournful indictment of the West’s policy of malign neglect towards Africa also echoes the measured fury discernible in Sembene’s work. Borrowing its narrative from The Visit, Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s elegant parable of official complicity with Nazi malfeasance, Hyenas, in an analogous vein, condemns African complicity with the amoral policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The film resists easy moral judgments. Dramaan, the central character who at first seems like little more than a genial shopkeeper holding forth with local cronies in the small village of Colobane, also emerges as the catalyst for a cycle of despair and devastation. As the film opens, a woman he once seduced and abandoned, Linguère Ramatou—now “as wealthy as the World Bank”—triumphantly returns to Colobane. Luring the villagers with a plethora of consumer goods, Ramatou wreaks vengeance on her former lover and Colobane becomes linked to the same sort of moral and political impoverishment that Sembene deplores in films such as Xala and Guelwaar. Just as Guelwaar takes on the corruption engendered by ostensibly benevolent foreign aid, Hyenas lambastes the corruption that individuals impose on themselves through greed and bad faith.

Again, it’s important to emphasize that Sembene’s intellectual legacy, despite its cogent critiques of Western arrogance, also has ample room for disgust toward indigenous African inequities. Sembene and his cinematic progeny (and Mambéty should be counted among the latter despite what Busch and Annas term “their subliminal rivalry) are animated by a willingness to balance disgust for the condescension of Westerners with an equal disdain for the duplicity of African elites. During a conference on his work held at Smith College in 1990, Sembene insisted that “in the whole of Africa since independence, some 30 years ago, the new African bourgeoisie has killed more African intellectuals than did 100 years of colonialism, or else they have driven them into exile until, intellectually, they are destroyed.”

For this reason, Sembene’s dual ideological focus fueled a supremely dialectical approach to politics and filmmaking. He once famously proclaimed that his brand of cinema could be compared to an “evening school” and no film in what might be loosely termed the “Sembene tradition” continues this strain of filmmaking more ably than Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006). A courtyard in Mali’s capital is the backdrop for a spirited dialogue on the role of the IMF and the World Bank in either promoting—or inhibiting—African economic development. While Sissako does not assume a pose of false neutrality (and some critics have faulted Bamako’s fiery rhetoric as simplistic), his didacticism is gentle rather than hectoring. On the French DVD release of the film, he compares Bamako’s project of putting these financial institutions on trial to the conventions of the courtroom-film subgenre; the film’s conceit of a populist trial assailing Western policies of “structural adjustment” de-psychologizes Hollywood models such as Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And as is true in Xala and Moolaadé, a broad-based political argument does not degenerate into a screed since the general—the polemic itself—is always filtered through the particularities of a character-driven narrative—albeit a loose, quasi-Brechtian narrative. Bamako’s pseudo-documentary sequences,in which actual lawyers play prosecutors and defense attorneys whose exhortations do not necessarily correspond to their own prejudices, are juxtaposed with more transparently fictional interludes in which a couple’s marital strife offers something of a counterbalance—and in some respects an antidote—to the political verbiage on display in the public realm.

It’s a little surprising—perhaps even slightly disconcerting—that Sembene’s influence is much less tangible in the rest of what used to be referred to as the “Third World” (a currently dubious category given the post-1989 implosion of the “Second World”). To cite one obvious example, the lively “Beur cinema” (a rubric identifying movies made by French directors of North African origin that corresponds more precisely to what academics have christened “diasporic cinema” than to Third World cinema per se) might prove even livelier and more provocative if it traded some of its indebtedness to the relatively conventional films of Spike Lee for an engagement with Sembene’s more challenging cinematic aesthetic. (That said, Beur director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s recent Dernier maquis is a self-reflexive film about internecine conflicts among Muslims in a grim industrial park that in some respects recalls, no doubt unwittingly, Sembene’s aesthetic and political rigor.) In any case, launching a truly critical cinema is always a struggle—a struggle Sembene and his African cinematic descendants have conducted with admirable intelligence and ferocity.

The 2008 Thessaloniki International Film Festival (November 14-23) will feature a retrospective of the work of Ousmane Sembene. A version of this essay will be included in the festival catalogue. Sembene’s films are distributed in the United States by New Yorker Films. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy New Yorker Films
Ousmane Sembene's Guelwaar
Photo Gallery: The African King


Ousmane Sembene site


Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

More articles by Richard Porton