Sugar Cane Alley directed by Euzhan Palcy - photo (c) René Maran/JMJ international Pictures

AFROPUNK en FrançaisFilm / TV

a festival of black french films tackles colonialism

April 5, 2019
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The Black Experience in French Cinema is a three-day film festival and conference hosted by the NYU Institute of French Studies that launches April 11. (Full disclosure: this writer teaches a hip-hop course at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.) Curated by writer-director Isabelle Boni-Claverie, this retrospective of French-African film deals with questions of colonialism, race, gender and identity that are best answered by those who live France’s integration and assimilation day to day.

There was a time when that was me. Having departed New York City to live in Paris from 2004 to 2011, I’ve played the resident expert on French race relations for a wide swath of American friends since returning. I was married in suburban Arcueil; my two young sons were born in the Paris’ 14th Arrondissement; and my wife Christine is French by way of Martinique. With the current U.S. political climate, most of those friends and family members have wondered why I don’t return there permanently, even with the string of terrorist acts taking place in the City of Light recently, including the deadly attack at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the mass shooting at the Bataclan theatre.

(L-R): Giulia Boschi and Isaach de Bankolé, in a scene from ‘Chcocolat,’ a 1988 film by Claire Denis.

When I first arrived abroad, in the mid-Aughts, conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy had won the presidential election, partly on an anti-immigration policy not so different from Donald Trump’s a little over a decade later. Annual visits to the préfecture office were mandatory for the exchange of paperwork and euros required to renew my version of France’s green card (carte de séjour). That scene was always a comedy of errors for the Blacks from French-colonized countries who were applying for residence permits — only there was nothing funny about it. Eventually I received a card good for 10 years, meaning I didn’t have to return. But every time I sat through administrative wait times for my turn, there’d be an inevitable shouting match between French bureaucrats and Africans who didn’t dot enough i’s or cross enough t’s for the office’s satisfaction. Security would often get involved, and be asked to eject them. Meanwhile, I coasted in and out of the prefecture without fail, as if white privilege extends to all expat Americans, regardless of color.

That’s how it feels to be a Black American everywhere in France: as if white privilege finally applies to you. For how it feels to be an African in France, look no further than The Black Experience in French Cinema festival.

Split between the Cantor Film Center, the Michelson Theater and La Maison Française of NYU theaters, the retrospective is divided into three programs: coming to terms with the colonial experience; race and gender in the housing projects; and new intimacies across the racial line. Septuagenarian filmmaker Claire Denis just released High Life, a science fiction thriller starring André 3000 and Robert Pattinson. But Denis’ 1988 film Chocolat (which screens Thursday, April 11th) takes in far more down-to-earth territory. A young (white) woman returns to Cameroon, where she grew up, and re-engages with her childhood life and the family’s African domestic worker, Protée. Nominated the year of its release for a César Award (the French Academy Award), Chocolat will be presented by Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé (Black Panther, Casino Royale) and followed by a moderated discussion of French colonialism on film.

The Black Experience in French Cinema takes pains not to centralize the white gaze of filmmakers like Denis. A 1983 modern classic from the first black director and woman director to receive a César, director Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley) tracks young José through the Martinique sugar cane fields of the 1930s, on his personal journey of self-discovery. Credited as the first movie ever made by African filmmakers, 1955’s Afrique sur Seine (Africa on Seine) — directed by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Jacques Mélo Kane and Mamadou Sarr — questions African identity and culture from the heart of Paris, France. The final film of the festival’s colonialism-themed opening night, Lumières Noires (Black Lights) flashes back to September 1956, and the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists held at the Sorbonne. A true Pan-African brain trust convened at the university to discuss French imperialism and Black identity, including James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Négritude founder Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and more.

All Thursday screenings dealing with the colonial experience will be followed by Q&A discussions. For more information on times, dates and theaters for the entire program, please see the NYU Institute of French Studies.