Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley) – “Ye krik! Ye krak!”

Sugar Cane alley poster”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.

Euzhan Palcy
Euzhan Palcy

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.

 

 

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_Earth

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

 

 

In 1961 Frantz Fanon dictated most of his last book, Les Damnés de la Terre, translated as The Wretched of the Earth, from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis. He was 36 years old and dying of leukaemia. The disease had recently blinded him for some weeks but he managed to complete the book in ten weeks in a race against death.

Fanon, who was from Martinique in the Caribbean, had ended up Tunisia after he joined the Algerian national liberation movement in 1954. He had joined the Free French Forces fighting the Nazis as a teenager and, as a result, had been able to study medicine in France after the war. He had specialised in psychiatry and had taken a post in a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria.

 

The Wretched of the Earth draws on Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as well as his travels around Africa as an ambassador for the Algerian national liberation movement. It begins with an account of the colonial city, ‘this world divided in two’, and goes on to examine the internalisation of colonial violence among the oppressed, the resulting violence among the oppressed, and the moment when violence is turned back on colonial oppression.

Fanon then turns his critical attention towards anti‑colonial resistance, stressing that in the colonial situation Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ and paying particular attention to the political agency of ordinary people, including peasants and the urban poor. He is committed to forms of struggle that are genuinely mass-based and participatory.

The book’s third focus is an examination of the pathologies of the regimes that came to power in Africa after colonialism. In Fanon’s estimation they took over rather than undid colonial systems, demobilised the mass movements that had brought them to power and used their own political credibility to entrench authoritarian and predatory regimes. Against this, still committed to a radical humanism, he posed a refusal of technocratic approaches to development and the full involvement of the people in both political and economic life. The final chapter of the book, drawing on Fanon’s case notes from his period as a psychiatrist in Algeria, investigates the damage done to human beings by colonialism and violence.

The Wretched of the Earth was banned on publication in France and copies were seized from bookshops. But it was heralded in radical black circles in the US and taken up in places such as Iran and Sri Lanka. Fifty years later it remains the key text in radical circles in South Africa, where it is regularly cited by grass-roots militants.

Initial readings of the book often caricatured Fanon’s endorsement of violence against colonial regimes. Fanon’s support for violent struggle was often read outside the context of the extraordinary violence of French colonialism in Algeria and there has been a racist double standard in which Fanon is excoriated for endorsing violent struggle while white intellectuals, such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, are not subject to the same condemnation. Although he had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Free French Forces, Fanon had a personal horror of violence and was acutely aware of the damage that it can do to individuals and societies.

Many of the misreadings of The Wretched of the Earth are due to the way the book is developed as an unfolding narrative in which consciousness changes in the vortex of struggle. Statements affirmed with unqualified emphasis at one point are often questioned later on. This means that the book has to be read as a whole to be properly understood and that simply taking isolated quotes or extracts will not give an accurate impression of the author’s intentions.

Fanon left this world as The Wretched of the Earth entered it. Fifty years on, his final book retains an extraordinary political charge in countries where it remains necessary to oppose both new forms of colonial or neo-colonial power and new forms of elite accommodation with that power in the name of the nation.