World Literature in English
Director & Production Background


Sugar Cane Alley
from the novel Joseph Zobel, Black Shack Alley 

Story of 
a boy pulling himself up by his bootstraps?
  • Setting: St. Martinique in the 1930s; Black Shack Alley, Port-de-France 
  • Characters: Major--Jose, Amantine (Ma Tine) 

  •               Minor--Medouze (Jose's spiritual mentor), Leopold (the mulatto boy), Carmen, Mme, Leonce, 
                  the two teachers (Mr. Roc and ?), Miss Flora (the ticket girl), Ti Coco, Twelve-Toe, Mme Fusil, Madame Saint Louis
  • Story of Growth in a Colonial Context:
    • The boy's background: Black Shack Alley
      • the workers -- their songs; their ways of rebellion; Ti CoCo's wage;
      • the children -- the broken bowl episode (no sugar?), the rum-drinking episode; the school kids
      • the overseers -- e.g. Whitley
    • What role does the schools, as well as the teachers, play in Jose's education?   Besides the teachers, who serves also as Jose's teachers?
    • The theme of education -- Who else is learning in the film?  Is it all proper learning?  (e.g. Carman)

  • Grandmother and Jose
    • Grandmother's attitudes toward Jose's education  -- e.g. her response to Jose's wanting to work, her response to Mme Leonce's explotation of Jose; her view of Port-de-France? 
    • Why does she go back to Black Shack Alley if the place is a "toad-hole" for her?
    • Jose's attitude toward her and her attitude toward education.
    • The closing scene

  • Other Influences on Jose: Different Characters' cultural identity: Black Skin, White Mask
    • Moudouze and his stories about slavery and about life;
    • Leopold and his white father (Mr. de Thoral)
    • Carmen and his white lady
    • the ticketbooth woman (Ms. Flora)

  • Race Relations and the history of slavery-- 
    • How are the laborers exploited and how do resist their overseers? 
    • How is Leopold positioned in relation to both the black and the white? 

  • Please read Caribbean Cinema and "Black Shack Alley" and consider the filmic techniques of the film.
  • Novel about race relations in the plantations: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Novel about growing up in the Caribbean/colonial contexts: Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge; Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
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    The setting is Martinique in the early 1930s. Young Jose and his grandmother live in a small village.  The children's games are set in contrast with the adults' hardwork, whose wages are very little.  While the other adults ask their kids to work in the sugar cane field too, Jose's grandmother insists on his receiving education.  Her efforts include: keeping newspapers for him to read, sending him to school, and moving to Fort-de-France to make Jose's studies easier while she works even harder as a laundrywoman.

    What Jose learns is not just knowledge from school.  Her learns from M. Moudouz about the history of slavery, from his friend, Leopold(the bastard son of the Creole plantation owner), about racial inequality.  Also, he learns to assert himself in and out of school when the adults (including the teachers) misunderstand him or mistreats him.

    In Fort-de-France, Jose also witnesses different people's different cultural identities.  
    The following introduction is excerpted from 
    Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide  Cross-Cultural Film Guide Introduction and Overview
    The American University/ ©1992 ; boldface & pictures added by Kate Liu

    Style: The film has high production values, despite a less-than-a-million-dollar budget, and is executed with deceptive grace and simplicity. It comfortably uses the conventions of psychological realism in which traditional international fiction features are made. The acting by child non-actors is of particular note, an achievement not only of the children but of Palcy's directing. The film maintains close focus on the psychological experience of the boy hero, but packs the screen and the scenes with illuminating and contextualizing material. It carries a message without reducing the story to the message. 

    Background on director/film: Palcy, who is black, began work in the French National Radio and Television station FR3 in Martinique, and made three films working with children before this. She won a grant for a third of the production funds from a French government grant for young directors. She wrote the script, drawing it from a well-known Martinican novel by Joseph Zobel, of the same title.   Martinican officials including the noted poet of negritude Aime Cesaire, the mayor of Fort-de-France, backed the production as well. (Cesaire's friendship with Seck had much to do with his agreeing to play the role.) The film was made in French, not the Martinican creole, in part to satisfy the grant requirements; however the film was not, as is traditional with such grants, first shown in France. It premiered in Martinique, where it broke all box office records for any film ever shown there, and as a result of a post-card campaign from Martinique to France also became a hit in France. 

    Because the film was controversial and because the white Creole elite continues strong in Martinique (which continues to be an overseas province of France), Palcy had wondered if there might be local criticism. However, she told Pat Aufderheide when it came out, in an interview in Chicago, there was no elite outrage. "Partly it's because they have less power than they once did, because French overseas investment now has more control over the economy. And partly it's because they were relieved to see the final result. They had been afraid that the film would be much harsher in its portrayal of whites, in fact a racist film. I however had never wanted to make a racist film. I wanted to make a film that could touch people, awaken their consciences to a sense of change--a revolt in a positive sense--and move hem to struggle peacefully for a better life, to come to see themselves as people with dignity." . . . 

    Film production context: Film production throughout the Antilles is very much an individual and personal affair. Small and impoverished populations create no adequate mass base to finance commercial production. French government grants both to its overseas provinces and its ex-colonies (not just in the Antilles but in Africa) have been critical in spurring film production. 


      The film swept the French Cesars (like the Oscars), and won two awards, including the Silver Lion, at the Venice Film Festival. It was a smash hit at home, and well-received in France. It had a successful commercial release in the U.S., with Orion, and continues its life on commercial video shelves. One of the reasons for its international success is its winsome hero and the story that can be interpreted as a boy pulling himself up by his bootstraps. However, that reading is belied by a more careful look at the central dilemma of the film: that colonial education provides no way for someone from the lower rungs of the society to honor their own and their culture's experience of struggle. The enduring success of the film is its ability to allow the viewer to enter into the boy's central problem without becoming didactic
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