”Sugar Cane Alley” (Rue Cases-Nègres) unwraps with what looks like a series of sepia-tinted, picture-postcard views of Martinique as it was in the 1930’s and, to a certain extent, as it still is today. These postcard shots are ”official” souvenirs of a world inhabited by anonymous, mute people, or what Frantz Fanon would called the “wretched of the earth”; their existence seem to serve solely for the purpose of providing subjects for the cameras of the tourists and a backs of support of an exploitive system.
This film seems to grow so directly out of old memories that it’s a surprise to discover that the director, Euzhan Palcy, based it on a novel, an autobiographical testimony of Joseph Zobel; however it feels so real we assume he based it on her own life. The film tells the story of a young orphan who was born on the French-speaking island of Martinique in 1930s, and, when the story begins, is a carefree 11-year-old playing with the other kids in Sugar Cane Alley — a row of shacks by the cane fields.
The first scenes get right inside a child’s point of view, they are left alone all day while their parents work in the fields, and they make up games, get into fights, and poke about where they’re not supposed to be. When one of them breaks a precious sugar bowl, the depth of the tragedy underlines the poverty of these people.
M’Man Tine, a wonderfully tough, pipe-smoking old woman who is raising the orphaned Jose on the sugar plantation where she has been a cane-cutter all her life. This role is played by an actress named Darling Legitimus with a no-nonsense sweetness that, like the movie itself, makes itself known only gradually. The measure of the actress, as well as of the role, is only fully evident by the end.
Jose is a smart kid — gifted, likable. He makes friend with a very old man, a man so old that he remembers the days of slavery, and tells Jose that the work in the fields is just a new form of slavery. He dreams of going back to Africa someday, and Jose says he’ll join him.
But, meanwhile, Jose is doing well in school. His grandmother works long hours to support them, so that he can break out of the fields and get an education. And the movie follows Jose as has sits for an exam, and is accepted by an intermediate school in the island’s capital. He gets a scholarship, but it’s not enough money, and in one of the great scenes of the movie his grandmother moves them to a packing case on the outskirts of the city and does laundry to support them both.
The film’s director, Euzhan Palcy, knows she’s dealing with many of the conventions of a rags-to-riches story here, but she avoids a lot of possible stereotypes by making everything very particular, by making Jose into an individual instead of just a good example. When a woman hires Jose and then makes him late for school, for example, Jose conceives a brilliant plan to sneak back and get even with her — while maintaining a perfect alibi. “Sugar Cane Alley” sees its world so clearly because it’s an inside job; Palcy grew up on Martinique. At the same time, she doesn’t lean on their heart-warming story. She’s are making a movie here, and it’s smart, sometimes hard-edged story that earns its moments of sentiment.
This film is a splendidly life-enhancing and even a life-changing classic, but sadly underappreciated gem. While not openly political, it is an extremely moral picture, yet not so intentionally educational as to opaque the flawless artistry with which it is directed.
In the end of the film, José says: “I will take my black shack alley with me,” reminding us to remember where we come from, no matter where we end up in life. He urges us to spare a thought for “all the black shack alleys all over the world,” to think of the sidelined, the ostracized and the oppressed wherever they may be, those whom society has cast out and deceitfully discarded, very often the African Diaspora. This movie entreats us, by appealing to our humanity and compassion, to be our brother’s keeper.