Friday, September 07, 2007

Film Review #121: Sugar Cane Alley
Director: Euzhan Palcy
Cast: Garry Cadenat, Darling Légitimus, Douta Seck

On Tuesday, labor leaders complained in The New York Times that Brooklyn’s 40th annual West India Day parade the day before – typically a couple million line its route – now overshadows Labor Day observances in the Big Apple. That’s ironic, since West India Day has its roots in 19th century celebrations of Great Britain’s 1834 abolition of slavery, which freed 800,000 – most living in British West Indies colonies – from involuntary servitude. Revived in the flush of '60s ethnic pride and activism, Brooklyn’s West India Day moved from its original August 1st to merge with the traditional Labor Day, thereby expanding the holiday to include all workers.

The Caribbean Diaspora Film Festival also overlaps West India Day. And on Monday, to coincide with that parade, CDFF offered this year’s crown jewel: four screenings at BAM Rose Cinema of Martinican filmmaker Euzhan Palcy’s classic, Sugar Cane Alley (1983) – also fitting, since slavery was abolished not once but twice during Martinique’s days as a French colony. This engrossing, well-made movie, Palcy’s first feature, won 17 international awards when she made it at age 28.

Sugar Cane Alley tells the escape from the sugar cane fields of smart and decent, but hardly saintly, 11-year-old Jose Hassam (Garry Cadenat), by dint of his grandmother’s insistence that he go to school. As his neighbor, the elderly cane-cutter Medouze (Douta Seck), teaches Jose and events in the film make clear, life on a French plantations in the 1930s was different from slavery in name alone. Workers were routinely cheated and beaten. And when kids drink some rum one day while the adults are in the fields, and burn down a shack, and the bosses just send them into the fields too.

Sugar Cane Alley runs from August 1930 – when we meet Jose and his grandmother Ma Tine (Darling Légitimus) at the Rivière Sallée plantation – to shortly after May 6, 1932. Jose wins a partial scholarship to a better school in the capital, Fort-de-France. He and his grandmother travel by riverboat and settle there in a packing crate; she does laundry to pay his remaining tuition. We can fix the movie’s span because Ma Tine takes the boat home on an errand and when she doesn’t return, Jose follows her and he passes a newsboy on the dock hawking the headline that French President Paul Doumer was just assassinated.

Dating the movie’s end in this way stamps the times in which Jose comes of age: a decade of considerable political and labor unrest in the Caribbean as well as the birthing of the international Négritude movement by intellectuals of African descent from French colonies who crossed paths in Paris. (One of those was the Palcy’s fellow Martinican, the writer and eventual mayor of Fort-de-France, Aimé Césaire, about whom Palcy has also made a documentary.) This strategically-placed detail
announces that this sleepy backwater boy's fate is part of something far larger. The assassinated Doumer had administered French Indochina – Vietnam – at the turn of the century. Setting a tone that would bear grim fruit later, even down to our own day, Doumer had proudly reported from Asia, “We have monopolies on alcohol, salt and opium production and are profiting off the cheap labor both in the mines and on the plantations.”

Palcy is careful to frame but not overwhelm Jose’s story with such references. A mischievous 11-year-old – he breaks a prized sugar bowl and lies about it, gets revenge on an adult who makes him late to school, bickers with the smartest girl and then matures into her friend – Jose is already interesting on his own. His eventual bond with Leopold, unacknowledged mulatto son of the plantation’s owner (uncredited, like most of the children’s roles), has great conviction in its final dramatic moment, despite just a few quiet earlier scenes together. Here, at a fever pitch, Jose’s loyalty to his dying grandmother jostles with Leopold’s capture by police for what we may assume is a first of many acts of resistance.

This culmination is a far cry from Sugar Cane Alley’s opening moments of festive piano and sepia-toned tropical postcards such as tourists mail home during cruises. Jose discovers the movies in Fort-de-France – wryly, it’s Dracula on the bill, Europe’s home-grown voodoo – but Palcy’s characters aren’t spending their days at the beach. Her overhead tracking shots of narrow halls and lanes, tight framing and close-ups convey how constricted chances are for the cane-cutters. There’s rarely a horizon – rarely an open future – except when Jose seeks Medouze’s stories of ancient Africa on the hillside and finally plans his own return to the capital.

The first black woman to direct a mainstream Hollywood feature – A Dry White Season (1989) on South Africa’s apartheid – Palcy has maintained an international vision of justice, but like director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) has more often found work in television than film. (Yvonne Welbon's 2003 doc Sisters in Cinema is a worthwhile watch in this respect.) She’s made Disney’s Ruby Bridges (1999), on Louisiana school integration, and Showtime’s The Killing Yard (2001), on the 1971 Attica prison massacre. She based Sugar Cane Alley on Joseph Zobel’s Black Shack Alley, which she read at age 14. She said, “It was the first time I read a book written by a black man of our country about the fruits of our country.”

And you don’t have to go to Brooklyn to see it.

This review appears in the 9/6/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.