Rue cases-nègres is being screened at HOME in Manchester on Saturday October 5th at 18.10. This is a great opportunity to view an important film as part of the celebration of ‘Women in Global Cinema’ – and Black History Month in October. The following notes are from an Introduction to the film screened as part of an evening class at Cornerhouse (the previous incarnation of HOME) in 2012.
Rue cases-nègres is an adaptation of a novel by Joseph Zobel with same title first published in France in 1950. It tells the story of a young boy, José Hassam who lives in the shanty town of ‘Black Shack Alley’ – sugar cane-cutters’ huts in Martinique in the 1930s. In the novel, José’s mother works in the main town so the boy is in the care of his grandmother M’Man Tine, a cane-cutter who is determined that José will get the best education in the island’s top school. (The film makes José an orphan.)
The film adaptation, written and directed by Euzhan Palcy, was released in September 1983 in France after winning a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for best first feature and also the best actress award for Darling Légitimus as M’Man Tine. In the French film industry’s César Awards in 1984, Euzhan Palcy was again honoured with the Best First Feature Award. At the time of the film’s release Euzhan Palcy was 28 years old.
Joseph Zobel (1915-2006)
Zobel’s writing career began with short stories in Martinique in the late 1930s and his first novel was completed in 1942, but repressed by the Vichy government on the island. In 1946 he moved to Paris and continued writing and also studying at the Sorbonne. He also began to teach at a lycée in Fontainebleau. He completed a second novel and more short stories before finally completing his most famous publication in 1950. He then developed his poetry work and became involved in radio production. In 1957 he moved to Senegal, first teaching and then again as a poet moving into radio and eventually becoming a cultural advisor to the new radio services in francophone West Africa. He continued to write and publish for the rest of his long life, moving between Senegal and France where he died in 2006.
Rue cases-nègres was re-published by Présence Africaine in 1974 – a very welcome new print since the 1950 edition was hard to find. It finally appeared in English as Black Shack Alley in a translation by Keith Q. Warner in 1980.
The négritude movement is associated primarily with three writers from different parts of the French Empire who met in Paris in the 1930s. Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léopold Senghor from Senegal and Léon Damas from French Guiana (Guyane) worked together on the publication of a journal, L’Étudiant noir. Each had slightly different ideas as to what the concept meant in practice, but these common features are apparent from their writings:
- promotion of pride in a Black identity and validation of African history and traditions;
- opposition to colonialism and racism and the hegemony of European thought;
- socialist/Marxist ideology;
- literary style of realism.
However, the négritude writers also generally thought in terms of gaining an equal part in French government rather than seeking independence from France. Césaire and Dumas were both members of the French National Assembly for their home colonies and, when independence was in effect forced upon Senegal, Senghor became its first President.
Though Zobel arrived in Paris more than ten years later, négritude was still an important set of ideas in Parisian intellectual circles. Rue cases-nègres is in some ways a book imbued with the ideas of Zobel’s fellow Martinican, Césaire, and Léon Damas had been sent to the school that features in the novel in 1924. Césaire (who, had been a scholarship pupil in France) returned to Martinique to teach at the same school, the Lycée Schoelcher, in 1939. Zobel later worked in Senegal when Senghor was President.
However, Zobel did not himself consider Rue cases-nègres to be a novel defined by négritude. His model was more the work of the African-American writer Richard Wright and in particular his autobiographical study Black Boy (1945). Wright moved to Paris in 1946. Keith Q. Warner (1979) suggests that most of the writers in Zobel’s position wrote about their own experience since there were no other literary models available within their own culture at the time. He goes on to argue that Zobel gives us a detailed observational account of conditions in Martinique in the 1930s. This is instructive in its account of the poorest members of Martinican society, but only occasionally does Zobel make direct political comments.
Négritude was a set of ideas derived specifically from francophone culture – although it had something in common with the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York and the Hispanic Caribbean ‘negrismo’ of the early twentieth century, with cross-fertilisation between writers in each group, many of whom met in Paris. The French capital had been a haven for writers and a focal point for Black intellectuals tracing their inspiration back to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebellion in Haiti during the Napoleonic Wars.
Négritude was not without its critics, including Frantz Fanon, one of Césaire’s pupils at Lycée Schoelcher and Sembène Ousmane, a working-class, self-educated Senegalese whose novels and later films argued something rather different in the 1950s and 1960s (based on his experiences in the 1940s). Négritude was also opposed by some Anglophone Africans who had experienced a different kind of colonialist culture.
Martinique, along with the slightly larger island of Guadeloupe, is part of the ‘French Antilles’ located in the South East Caribbean. In the 1930s its population as a French colonial possession was around 210,000. In 1946 it became an Overseas Department of France and eventually part of the European Union. French colonial policy thus placed the relationship between its ex-colonial subjects and the metropolitan centre in a very different context to that of, for example, the nearby anglophone islands of Dominica and St Lucia. Most of the islands of the Antilles actually experienced different periods of British, Dutch, Spanish or French colonialism at different times.
Christian Filostrat (1979) tells us that the entire school system of Martinique was controlled from Bordeaux (the main French port for the slave trade). Nothing in school referred to local culture and therefore the eventual appearance in the island’s bookshops of Rue cases-nègres was a very welcome shock – to read something written by somebody who had experienced growing up and going to school in Fort-de-France (the colonial capital and largest town on the island). Before Zobel, none of the literary work of Martinicans writing in Paris had in effect ‘come home’ to Martinique. ‘Assimilation’ meant that the overseas Martinicans simply became ‘French’ and the islanders remained in the rigid class system which saw the 5% white population (békés in the local creole) at the top, followed by the ‘mulatto’ population and then the majority Black population at the bottom. Education was the main way to move up the social scale.
Born and raised in Martinique, Euzhan Palcy read Zobel’s novel when she was 14 and had an outline script ready by the time she was 17 – when she was working with the local broadcasting company. Soon after this she left for Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne and then filmmaking at the Louis Lumière School.
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 quote on http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/worldlit/caribbean/CaribCinema_SugarCane.html
The achievement by Euzhan Palcy was widely recognised. She had made Rue cases-nègres for less than $1 million and in 1984 she was invited to Sundance by Robert Redford. In 1989 she became the first Black woman to direct a feature produced by a major Hollywood studio with the South African literary adaptation Dry White Season (from the novel by André Brink). Since 1983, Palcy has divided her time between major projects in France and the US in both film and TV – nearly always in relation to stories from African-American or African-Caribbean-French history. She has been repeatedly feted and honoured in both countries and Rue cases-nègres has become a classic film used in both French and American education institutions. A quick glance at her Wikipedia entry gives an indication of the extent of her work and public profile. However, despite the success of Rue cases-nègres in 1984, few of her subsequent productions have been released in the UK.
Rue cases-nègres was released in the UK in the summer of 1984. This was an important period in British film studies when issues of identity, colonialist cinema and concepts of ‘Third Cinema’ were gaining prominence. The film was included in the list of films provided as part of the Anti-Racist Film Programme devised for the London Against Racism project of the GLC.
In her review of the film for Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1984) Jill Forbes, the well-known scholar of French cinema, praised the film as a well-told story that contributed to the representations of the history of Caribbean culture – and in doing so overturned typical Hollywood generalisations about Caribbean ‘types’. But she also commented on the style of the film which she felt was trapped within the conventions of French cinema. She points out that (at that time) there were several commercial French films trading on the nostalgia of the colonial period (much as in British TV and cinema’s interest in nostalgia for the Indian colonial period). Some scenes in Rue cases-nègres unintentionally played to this nostalgia. Other scenes, more documentary in nature, she compared to the ethnographic and ciné vérité tradition in France. The founder of ciné vérité, Jean Rouch did much of his work in West Africa or with Africans in Paris.
Forbes’ comments are important and they point to the difficulties for Caribbean filmmakers who are doubly colonised – both politically and cinematically. Forbes argues that, apart from Cuba with its strong cinematic traditions and ‘New Cinema’ since the 1960s, the Caribbean had not developed a cinematic identity. In doing so she ignored the Jamaican film The Harder They Come (1972) which might make an interesting comparison with Rue cases-nègres. Made in Jamaican patois and with a reggae soundtrack, The Harder They Come is a film based on the story of Rhygin – a real Jamaican criminal from the 1940s. In the opposite process to Rue cases-nègres, The Harder They Come then prompted a 1980 novel based on the film by Michael Thelwell which was written in patois and included extended references to Jamaican folklore. These two stand-out films serve as examples of the different cultural conditions that produced post-colonial films in the francophone and anglophone Caribbean.
A note on the film’s official nationality
Rue cases-nègres is in many ways a film about francophone culture, especially language and education, yet officially it is a French film. The production companies were French and Martinique is a department of France. On the other hand its ‘cultural identity’ is Caribbean-French and just as with anglophone Caribbean filmmakers such as Horace Ové from Trinidad, the practice developed of seeing filmmakers such as Euzhan Palcy as part of a new Caribbean cinema, or even as part of African cinema. This would also be true of several African filmmakers who make films from a French production base.
References and further reading
Filostrat, Christian (1979) ‘Foreword: We All Had a M’Man Tine’ in Zobel (ibid)
Forbes, Jill (1984) Review of Rue cases-nègres, Monthly Film Bulletin, July
Warner, Keith Q (1979) ‘Introduction’ to Zobel (ibid)
Zobel, Joseph (1997) Black Shack Alley, Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers
Roy Stafford, 24/10/2012