Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

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