"In my mind, it was urgent to make a movie of this story . . . Zobel's book was a great revelation and shock because all of our books are about France. It was the first time I read a book written by a black man of our country about the fruits of our country." Euzhan Palcy, director of La Rue Cases-Nègrès.
1. Caribbean Cinema.
Film making in the Caribbean by Caribbean people is a relatively recent phenomenon--except (I read) for Cuba and maybe Puerto Rico. Like African film, it has emerged mainly since the late 1970s and early 80s--as a local, indigenous, or distinct art .
Movies as entertainment are not at all new to the West Indies. The Caribbean has been a receiver and consumer of European and American films for a long time. It is the activity of production and transmission--that is, film by West Indians---which is so recent.
The emergence of a Caribbean cinema parallels, in certain respects, political, economic, and cultural developments in the 1960s and 70s. Not unlike circumstances in Africa. And like Africa, the conditions for production have been economically and sometimes politically difficult. (Film is a very expensive art form. Some governments would oppose or even suppress films that might be critical.)
The emergence of a West Indian cinema also parallels innovative thinking about a distinct Caribbean identity. Many writers identify Edouard Glissant as instrumental in defining a sense of identity in terms of "Créolité." (The notes on Glissant say more about this.)
The Caribbean diaspora (West Indians emigrating to Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.) raises not only questions about identity and belonging but also about what qualifies as Caribbean cinema--films by West Indians made in the Caribbean? films by West Indians made in Europe? films about the Caribbean made by folks who aren't Caribbean in any way? The first two categories usually count.
Questions of identity, hybridity, movement, "unceasing transformation," and so on lead directly to ideas and experiences of exile.
The topics outlinedunder African Cinema of production, technology, aesthetics, and thematics are also relevant to the Caribbean.
2. Euzhan Palcy, the director.
Palcy first read the novel, Rue Case Negres by Joseph Zobel, when she was 14 years old. She reportedly wrote her first script based on it at 17 when she went to work for the Radio Télévision Francaise office in Fort-de-France. She is Martinican but left the island for Paris in 1975--which has been the base for her subsequent cinematic career. She studied literature at the Sorbonne for her undergraduate degree and then earned a Ph.D. there in cinema. She studied filmmaking at the Rue Lumiere School. She made Sugar Cane Alley when she was 28! Palcy is also the director of A Dry White Season (1989), an anti-apartheid film about South Africa, a Hollywood film, but made in Zimbabwe and "starring" Donald Sutherland and Marlon Brando (and available at video stores all across America). She madeSimeon in 1992, a film inspired by Caribbean music and written and shot from the point of view of a 10 year old girl. It is "a film about the spirit of the music and a paean to those who perform it" (Linda Lopez McAlister). Palcy has established her own production company. Recently, she completed a three part documentary about Aimé Cesaire, a poet and politician and the foremost West Indian writer on Negritude: Aimé Cesaire: Une Voix Pour L'histoire. She is also working on a feature film biography of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot who learned to fly in France in the 1920s and on a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture.
3. Sugarcane Alley.
This is one of the best known and most successful Caribbean films. It was received well at the New York film Festival in 1984. It's been well reviewed by non-West Indians but also seems to have been received well in the Caribbean as a film which portrays recognizable experiences (and problems) and avoids the usual Islands magazine imagery.
This film is more accessible than films like Yeelen or even Hyenas. Palcy understands western film techniques and the importance of narrative to appeal to different audiences. This film seems more familiar --even though thecharacters speak French, and it is set among impoverished people on a distant island, in the 1930s. Palcy also infuses her films with political and cultural content. Simple and direct in A Dry White Season.. Somewhat less pointed in Sugar Cane Alley.
The following notes are rather cryptic but perhaps sufficient to give you several ways of seeing and thinking about the film.
[Imagine that you are a movie reviewer at the New York Film Festival--or anywhere. How would you review this? What particulars would you cover--the characters, setting, contrasts, themes, politics, technique? What would you SAY?]
a. Colonial Martinique--1930s.Slavery has ended decades before. Blacks are presumably "free."b. Characters. They all function significantly in relation to Jose.
Nothing has changed, however. Most Blacks are still poor, dependent laborers.
The economy is still exploitive and extractive.Ma Tinec. Conflicts--contrasts: oppositions (codes)
Medouze How would you characterize these people?
Leopold What do you learn about Jose through each?
Carmen How do the relationships advance the story?
(We defined several oppositions or dichotomies during the discussion of "Yeelen." These may help organize your thinking about "Sugar Cane Alley.")
There is a rather obvious hierarchy of value and prestige in these opposites.
d. Education: informing and enabling
- White/ Black (mulatto, mixed race in between)
- Europe/West Indies
- Homes/ shacks
Medouze and Amantine seem to convey values, wisdom, direction, history, culture.
School provides a more formal education--the second door to freedom.
e. Politics and culture.
These issues may be somewhat subdued in the film--people and relationships are portrayed very strongly--but the political and cultural content seems undeniable. The film is set at a time, remember, of considerable unrest and resistance in the Caribbean--the 1930s.Economic and class structure.Does Jose's 'success' suggest that things are changing? There will be justice? Does his promise mean anything? Is he simply an exception?
Protest and complaints. No serious resistance among workers is portrayed. (They mock and ridicule their 'superiors.' They sing to witness their opposition to the treatment of Leopold. One the men pees on the job.) Nevertheless, The way the people are mistreated seems pretty clear. There is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction and anger.
People's movement. It's mostly implicit but there.
Leopold and the protest singing at the end.
How do you read this line at the end? "Take my Black Shack Alley with me."
It's especially important to think about film technique because so many of our images of the West Indies are tourist, vacation, playground images--sun, sea, sand, and sex. Club Med. By contrast, this film is made in a rather spare style. There is an apparent economy of technique at work. The sepia tones are simpy the most obvious.
Observe carefully these specific aesthetic and technical features.Opening credit images--the postcard views. We seem to be seeing a 1930s tourist vision or version of Martinique. We see quite separate worlds for Black and White. These are most of the images.The alley. Boulevard. People disembarking. Church-ox team. City. Country. White upper class. Labor. Government buildings. Rich homes. The alley. A church. A team of oxen.Sequence of events. Identify expressive moments or turning points in the film. Medouze dies, e.g., almost exactly halfway through. Ma Tine dies at the end. There is very little waste.
Stories within the narrative. Medouze talks, e.g., about Africa, about capture, transport, slavery,and about nature or creation.
Setting. Examine the contrasts, e.g., between Ma Tine's home and her village and , explain the effects, think about the expressive function of setting.
Color. What is the effect of thesubdued, sepia tones?
Framing and images. Think about the tight framing and the absence of any typical scenery shots. This film does not look like Island magazine. There is little sense of shore, sea, and sun.Note how each of these 'subjects' are shot. There seems to be a strong focus on relationships/conditionsMusic and sound. How is the film "scored"?
- Exteriors--relatively tight, as well, limited--few long or horizon shots.
- Jose and Medouze
- Town scenes
What are the practical and expressive effects of this economy of technique?