Living with the Legacy of Ousmane Sembène

To me, the African-American stereotype about a pioneering filmmaker is one who celebrates the ability to make a film as a technical achievement and to successfully replicate how Europeans make money by filmmaking. It would be the “mission” of Ousmane Sembène, then, to perform these feats of Negro profiteering—and when the moment is “right” he could contrive some boring, Pollyanna film about “racial injustice.”

Buy this DVD at! Ousmane Sembène is nowhere near such pedestrian movement. Ousmane Sembène makes it possible for me to say that, from the beginning of African feature filmmaking, Africans were well aware of the “complexities” of the problems of European and Islamic colonialism in Africa. There is a foundational awareness of the facets of African peoples. The word “complexities” is supposed to make it impossible for you to assume without incredible ignorance that, just because Ousmane Sembène is a Black man, he makes films that say “Blacks are good and whites are bad.” Negroes and self-described “white people” need to make these gross simplifications in order to manufacture a meaningful existence. It is tragic that such folk must ignore the genius of Ousmane Sembène in order to stay alive—but, when you are fighting for your life, the details of the work of some “unsympathetic” filmmaker is of little importance.

Ousmane Sebene, Xala So here is a detail that interests me from the 1975 comedy, Xala: while the African “leaders” of the African “nation” choose socialism, the Sembène eye sees two Europeans walking into seat of post-colonial African power with suitcases full of cash about to execute a very non-socialist transaction. The selling out of these African leaders dances before your eyes in a lighthearted, filmic waltz.

In fact, the comedy of Xala is that when impotence threatens one of the government officials only then does this properly assimilated African turn to his “taboo native” culture to address this primal problem. You can see the depths of his colonization in this anti-product placement scene, where Evian water is the source of life for the impotent father but a political symbol of economic oppression for the daughter.

Ousmane Sebene, Xala When we walk the pedestrian streets of Negro America we are supposed to find corporate piracy and corporate colonialism a novelty concept. When Ridley Scott made Blade Runner in 1982 he was ridiculed by his peers for making a dramatic, science fiction film about the power of a “mega corporation” dominating the civic landscape. So we can imagine why Sembène in 1975 had to joke about imported, corporate water. However, today the fact that water is being privatized at an alarming rate is no joke.

What is deeper and impossible for the properly assimilated to recognize is that Ousmane Sembène is showing us that what happens in Africa will eventually happen to the rest of the imperial world. Corporate greed knows no bounds. Cornel West warns us that free markets have no magical powers—and the giant injustice chickens pecking in Africa will eventually come home to roost. Most of us here in California are now conditioned to drink water from a corporate bottle instead of maintaining the quality of the civic tap. So now the Sembène joke is on us, here in the home of Hollywood! Still crazy after all these years…

Ousmane Sebene, Xala What is even deeper and seriously controversial is the Sembène view of the modernization of African women. Every woman in Xala that wears sunglasses and a wig explains to me why (perhaps) the great Cheikh Anta Diop married a native French woman instead of a native Senegalese woman. For those self-described Afrocentric scholars who are aware of the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese like Sembène (and a contemporary), to hear that he married a native French woman might be shocking and inexplicable under the influence of American industrial concepts of race and purity. But just a few moments with those loud ladies in Xala, my imagination supposes that a young Diop’s interest in ancient Africa—in spite of his advanced European-style scientific training—would be yet another joke to these modern African women. My apologies for any inaccuracies: these are just my unverifiable feelings… My knowledge grows from such reckless assertions…

My knowledge also comes from knowing that my heart and my body is the son of a mother who wore sunglasses and a wig (as did her mother). Whether the wig is worn in Senegal, in Los Angeles—or even in the imperial decline of ancient Egypt—there is a Pan-African unity seen by me through the lens of Ousmane Sembène and the refined intellection of Cheikh Anta Diop. Ousmane Sembène brings to entertainment these millennial issues with deceptive ease and simplicity.