Much of the affective force of Palcy’s film closely resembles and draws on the deep emotional involvement Truffaut leads his audience to invest in the vulnerable, yearning ne’er-do-well Antoine Doinel. And Zobel’s first-person narrator similarly pulls the reader into his world, with an interiority far more developed than the film’s José, as also are other characters such as Jojo and Carmen. But Palcy’s film – in the types of interiority it privileges, the types of relationships and networks it establishes, its exploration of the social contexts around the characters, and its encouragement of the audience to variable positionalities and awareness of those positionalities – prompts a kind of reflection in which class, race, and gender are present as categories to be analyzed and understood critically as they are essences to be felt affectively.
* * *
At the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for a “special tribute,” Martinican filmmaker Euzhan Palcy was asked in an interview for French television to discuss the “positive legacy of colonialism” evidenced by the upward mobility provided by the national system of education. Palcy promptly corrected her white host, Patrick Simonin: “I have to say that it’s shameful to talk about the positive legacy of colonialism, because you shouldn’t put it that way. There is nothing positive to say about colonialism.”1 The film in question, and the main reason Palcy was being celebrated, was the “near-thirty-year” anniversary of her landmark debut film, Rue Cases-Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley; lit. “Black Shack Alley”), released when she was twenty-eight. Primarily because of its riveting portrait of a talented child escaping the sugarcane fields through that vaunted educational system, Rue Cases-Nègres was a hit worldwide, won the César (the French Academy Awards) for best first feature, and was rapidly assimilated into the canon, as testified by an official “pedagogical dossier” from France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) in 2011. Moreover, in her very person, Palcy could easily be taken for a living tribute to the same system: daughter of a worker in a pineapple factory who went to Paris to study filmmaking, was fortuitously mentored by New Wave auteur François Truffaut after her best friend in school turned out to be his daughter, and would become the first Black woman to direct a movie within the Hollywood studio system (the 1989 apartheid drama A Dry White Season). The story told by Rue Cases-Nègres of José Hassam was not only the semi-autobiographical portrait of novelist Joseph Zobel but also, as Palcy has stated in countless interviews, a reflection of her own: “I discovered the novel when I was fourteen. It was the first time I read a novel by a black man, a black of my country, a black who was speaking about poor people.”2 Palcy had written the first version of the screenplay when she was seventeen and studying for her baccalaureate degree. Later, when continuing her studies in Paris (“Life was very hard. It was more difficult being a woman, and young, and black – three bad things”), she tracked down Zobel in the south of France, shared the screenplay with him, and received his blessing.3 What does it mean to live and to make art both within and outside of the colonial system, and what does Rue Cases-Nègres have to tell us about the legacy of colonialism and the paths of liberation available in, through, or against that legacy?
Responding to the film at the time of its release, Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé had no doubt whatsoever on these questions. “In the 1980s, the major problem facing Martinicans and Guadeloupeans was unemployment and emigration,” she argued in a radio review of the film. “Five hundred thousand of them had to migrate and live in the jungle of the big metropolitan cities. Their children, modestly called second generation, only saw the sugarcane fields on vacations, from July to September. They were well aware that school and education were no longer the golden path to upward social mobility and that being good at French compositions or reciting catechism lessons counted for nothing.”4 While undeniable, Condé’s critique at the same time readily dismissed the fact that half the population of Martinique had chosen to watch the film and that its production had been strongly supported not only by white cultural authorities in France but also by Martinican president, poet, and theorist of négritude Aimé Césaire. How, if at all, can we disentangle that critique from what to others felt like a radical and timely film that, according to its director in 2010, remains “unwrinkled” by time despite its already historical “pastness” when released in 1983? There are many ways to approach this question; in this essay, I discuss a pivotal feature of Palcy’s adaptation of Zobel’s novel and one of the primary ways, I argue, that the film addresses its moment in the 1980s in contradistinction to the years around 1950 when the novel was published and to the 1930s in which it (and the film) are set: the multifaceted ways the film uses education as a theme, deploys it as a plot thread, and understands it as an unequal system of opportunity and oppression.
Plagiarism, in Black and White
The path taken by José (Garry Cadenat) out of a life lived and died in the rue Cases-Nègres and cane fields of Petit-Morne passes through a series of examinations administered by the French educational system. Secular education had been made free for all citizens in 1881 and mandatory the following year, including in “overseas departments” such as Martinique; however, this law is neither mentioned nor observed in Zobel’s novel, where José is the only child from Petit-Morne to attend school in the nearby village of Petit-Bourg. The law’s existence may explain Palcy’s decision instead to have the alley’s children all attend school; scholar Haseenah Ebrahim also suggests that for Palcy’s generation, literacy was perceived as a given in ways that for Zobel’s it had not been.5 In either case, the movie opens with the children out of school for summer, establishing a space of relative freedom tightly constrained by the material conditions of labor under which their families work in the fields, and also by their own misbehavior, nearly burning down the village. The school to which they will return is presented as both a continuation of their lost freedom and a reprieve from work in the cane fields, whether temporary or, in José’s case, permanent.
In the local school, the teacher selects eligible students to take the scholarship exam to attend secondary school in the capital, Fort-de-France. He chooses two children, José and his friend Tortilla (Tania Hamel), to sit for the exam. Tortilla’s family will not let her go, an episode Palcy added to the novel, emphasizing the gendered obstacles embedded in the series of tests; José passes, and is admitted to school. He journeys with his grandmother to the city, only to discover that he is receiving a mere quarter-scholarship that will not cover anywhere near the cost of tuition or room and board. M’man Tine (played by movie veteran Darling Légitimus) supports him with piecework laundering and ironing. At this point, José submits an essay critiquing the system of labor in the cane fields that killed his elderly mentor Mr. Médouze (played by Senegalese stage actor Douta Seck). The schoolmaster reads it aloud, apparently to reward its brilliance, but instead, it turns out, to declare it plagiarized because there is no way José could have written it.
José’s fate hangs on the next episode; rather than the far more likely persistence in his error, the teacher instead comes to find José in the shack where he lives with his grandmother, waits for the boy when he discovers José is not there, admits his error, and apologizes: “True students are so rare.” The next day, he tells José that from now on he will receive a full scholarship plus stipend. In the film’s narrative logic at least, José’s future appears assured; in truth, what this path would typically assure him as “escape” would be a clerical position in some colonial office. As the fact of José’s first-person narration in the novel assures us and as the concluding voice-over Palcy added to the script equally promises, neither Zobel nor Palcy accepted that option for themselves, nor limited José’s possibilities to it. José concludes the film determined to pursue his formal schooling while honoring even more the education he received from Médouze and his grandmother, who died soon after receiving the good news of his success. “Ma Tine has gone to Mr. Médouze’s Africa,” the voice-over concludes. “Tomorrow,” he pledges, “I’ll return to Fort-de-France, and I’ll take my Black Shack Alley with me.”
Palcy’s adaptation remains fairly close to Zobel’s plagiarism scene as written; however, she transforms its function and meaning within the causal chain of the plot of José’s success as a student. The moment of confrontation is nearly identical, although Palcy chose to amplify the essay’s content by reproducing Jose’s impassioned condemnation of the “accursed” cane fields, while Zobel had stressed José’s attention to the essay’s form:
Going back to Petit-Morne, I remembered the death of Médouze. Consumed by inspiration, I wrote my essay at one go. Then I meticulously set about correcting it, polishing it up, calling on all the recommendations on composition and style, sifting everything through the rules of spelling. I was happy that I had devoted so much time to the assignment and that I had worked so hard on it. One week later, results of the correction: “Another disaster!” Mr. Jean-Henri announced. “How weak you are! Poor vocabulary, no syntax, no ideas. I’ve rarely seen students so indigent.” And he began to produce the better scripts – two or three. Then in bulk, the compositions of all the mediocre students. No sight of mine. Oh yes, at the last minute, just as I was in the depths of disappointment and despair. “Hassam,” he said in a deliberate manner. I stood up. I would have blushed if it were possible to show up on my face. “Hassam,” Mr. Jean-Henri continued, unfolding my assignment, “you’re the most cynical chap I’ve ever met! When you have to do literary essays, you’re never brave enough to consult the works recommended; but for an assignment as subjective as this one, it seemed easier to you to open a book and copy passages from it.” Lightning could not have dealt me a more violent blow. A gush of heat burned my face, my ears were ringing, my vision became blurred. I thought that blood was going to rush from every opening in my head. My throat felt as if a rough rope was being pulled tightly around it. “I didn’t copy, Monsieur,” I stammered. Holding my assignment open between his fingers, he spoke to the entire class. “Listen to this. . . .” He read aloud, and in a sarcastic tone of voice, two sentences, three sentences. “And then this,” he continued. . . . “And the little no-good is going to tell me he didn’t copy? Didn’t copy? Then it’s plagiarized!” “Monsieur, I can assure you I didn’t. . . .” “Shut up!” he shouted, pounding the table. He handed me back my assignment, his lips pursed in scorn, and added: “At any rate, you no longer amuse me with this little game, for I don’t like people making a fool of me. Here.” He was so indignant that the paper fell from his hand. I went and picked it up and, back in my seat, I hid it in a book, without even having the courage to look at the comments written on it.6
In the novel, there will be no teacher’s recognition of a mistake, no visit to the shack to acknowledge and apologize; moreover, the incident will have no relation whatsoever to the increase in José’s scholarship to full tuition plus stipend, which had already come directly from the bursar “in consideration of my work and conduct during the previous year.”7
Rather than Palcy’s characterization of a consistently superior student whose achievements are slow to be recognized, Zobel’s José is a promising student whose progress is uneven due to his own struggles with the conditions of his life and his internalized sense of racialized difference from the rest of the students in school, evident above in the words “I would have blushed if it were possible to show up on my face.” He even fails his final qualifying exams, managing to pass only on the second attempt, having finally found a way to motivate himself in the preparations. As opposed to Palcy’s José, who is devastated by the teacher’s rejection before subsequently being redeemed and uplifted by the belated acknowledgment of his brilliance, Zobel’s José’s responds to the incident with a different sort of pride, determined to prove his detractor wrong by his future actions but certain of the futility of any kind of direct confrontation or further protestation of innocence: “But that night, back in my room,” the episode continues, “I wanted to see what was scribbled in red ink. The passages the teacher accused me of having ‘copied from some books’ were precisely those that were the most personal to me and which had come most directly, without any reminiscence. I then felt pride urging me on to set to work in such a way as to produce consistently good assignments, until such time as the teacher was forced to recognize my honesty. But I smiled at his accusation. No, I preferred to agree to pass for a dunce in French. It was all the same to me.”8 Zobel’s José is rendered as a flawed, prickly, and fully realized individual; the underdog’s charm of Palcy’s José works instead to allegorize him as personification of an entire postcolony’s place within the French educational system while also speaking directly to her own and other life trajectories.
In this latter quality, if not in much else, Zobel’s José strongly resembles Antoine Doinel, the fourteen-year-old accidental delinquent of François Truffaut’s 1959 film, Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). Almost no critical writing on either film has commented on Palcy’s clear reference to the plagiarism scene in the semi-autobiographical debut of her “godfather” Truffaut.9 It seems almost impossible that the resemblance was unintentional; Palcy has long cited Truffaut as a key model for her filmmaking, he personally reviewed the screenplay, and Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, the Martinican editor who had begun her long and illustrious career not long before working on Truffaut’s film, also edited Rue Cases-Nègres. In addition to being, as Sophie F. Saint-Just observes, an “homage” to Truffaut,10 the scenes reward close study, as the comparison can tell us much about Palcy’s arguments about the function of education, authority, and chance in leaving behind poverty and confronting inequity, and help also to understand the choices she made in adapting the novel.
In Quatre cents coups, Antoine (the first role of soon-to-be French film icon Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a misunderstood and troubled young adolescent who quarrels with his mother and stepfather and chafes at the confines of school and other structures of authority, soon becoming a confirmed truant engaged in various forms of petty crime. His mother promises him a reward if he does well on an assignment; he prays at a homemade altar to his idol Balzac; inspiration comes in the form of a word-by-word channeling of the master’s language into his composition. The inevitable result is to be called out, mocked by his teacher, and eventually expelled. Soon after, Antoine’s parents will send him to a high-security reform school in the country; the film ends with him fleeing the school, running to the seashore, and turning to the camera in a freeze-frame close-up of his face, liberated but facing an uncertain future. In the event, Truffaut’s own path was less dramatic: a film fanatic who as a teenager saw upwards of fifteen movies a week, he quit school at fourteen, working odd jobs and attending prominent film critic André Bazin’s Sunday morning cine-club screenings. When a complaint was lodged against the young man for unpaid bills, his father tracked him down and brought him to the police; Truffaut spent two nights in jail before being shipped off to a center for “delinquent minors” outside of Paris. Bazin would bail him out, supporting Truffaut and helping him to establish himself first as a critic and then as a filmmaker.
The basic scenarios of an accusation of plagiarism by a disbelieving teacher are thus identical; however, nothing much else is. For Antoine, formal education is fundamentally incompatible with his artistic path and future as an autonomous individual. Truffaut depicts the educational system and its outdated emphasis on rote learning as stifling and suitable only for mockery and defiance. School is one among a series of systems of authority that oppress Antoine and from which he must radically break away in order to find his own identity. Rather than a classic bildungsroman of middle-class wandering and return, or a classic poverty narrative of success from perseverance and virtue, Quatre cents coups paints a society being left behind by the forces of modernity and imagination embodied in the cinema. To become an artist, the barely teenaged rebel must break with everything and everyone around him and find his own way, just as to become a New Wave filmmaker, Truffaut argued in Bazin’s magazine Les Cahiers du cinema, to create cinematic art it was necessary to reject the French studio system and what he disparagingly characterized as its bankrupt establishment and its tradition of “quality” filmmaking.
Nothing could be further from José’s options in Rue Cases-Nègres, either novel or film. José has precisely three starkly divergent options: grow up in the cane fields and work there all his life; find his way out through the strict and narrow path of colonial education into the professional bureaucracy; or enter the penal system. The latter option is dramatically enacted by José’s biracial friend Leopold (Laurent Saint-Cyr), son of a local béké [white Antillean] plantation owner, and his Black wife (unnamed in the credits, played by Marie-Jo Descas). When the father dies, refusing to bequeath his family name to Leopold, widow and son are left penniless. We next see Leopold, radicalized by his new circumstances and his prior friendship with the children of Petit-Morne, when he is caught stealing the ledger and trying to burn down the overseer’s office, to demonstrate how the laborers are being robbed of their earnings. When we last see Leopold, he is being dragged away, shackled, by the authorities, to an unknown fate presumably involving beating and imprisonment if not death. Even in the less dramatic version in Zobel’s novel, the character of Georges Roc, or Jojo, similarly paints the radical instability of an ostensibly comfortable youth and the disastrous consequences of a white father’s refusal to give his biracial son his name. Unwanted by his stepfather, Jojo runs away from home; José loses track of him for years until the friends meet again fortuitously in Fort-de-France. In between, we eventually learn, Jojo had stolen the ledger and been imprisoned.
As with the plagiarism scene, however, Zobel renders this episode as part of an up-and-down journey through life rather than its defining moment for the character. Moreover, as Martinican critic Alain Ménil noted, Palcy’s change highlights racial segregation over Zobel’s focus on a more fluid and negotiated system: “while in the novel the different social and racial groups are more loosely mixed, the film stresses only the segregation, the distance between these groups, and it does this in a contrived way sometimes. Leopold challenges racial taboo, while Georges Roc expresses only the rejection of social hierarchy.”11 Like Georges Roc, Antoine Doinel’s unenviable position is based on a difficult relationship with his mother and stepfather; however, Antoine’s whiteness allows his subsequent decision to be made exclusively on an existential and individual basis. Rather than Antoine’s individualistic rebellion against a dysfunctional family life and a bankrupt system, Leopold’s rebellion is portrayed as a political act and a choice of sides. And while José is shown in both novel and film to be in many ways locked within an actively exploitative system of racial capitalism, his access to the counter-tradition offered him by Médouze’s education through storytelling provides him with an enduring, internalized source of resistance to that system.
The sublime moments of pure liberation in Quatre cents coups – Antoine wandering freely with his wealthy but neglected friend René, spinning in the Rotor, on his own at dawn in Paris, running toward the seashore – occur outdoors, outside of the family and school, outside of any authorized structure, in spaces that effectively nurture him as his own family has not. Other actions have consequences, but these exist for and of themselves rather than impinging on Antoine’s self-understanding. In contrast, the moments of greatest freedom and happiness in Rue Cases-Nègres come at great risk and danger and must be willfully seized by the children from the strict order posed by their families for their own protection. Antoine, carried away by his dedication to the cult of Balzac, leaves a candle burning in his room, resulting in a hard slap by his father when the curtain catches fire. In contrast, the children of rue Cases-Nègres steal eggs, get drunk on rum, and nearly burn down their homes while playing with matches. As a consequence of this moment of excess, one man loses his home, the children are severely beaten, and all but José are sent to work in the cane fields because they are no longer trusted to be left on their own. José’s other childhood moments of freedom and happiness are the evenings when he seeks out Médouze to sit at his feet and soak up the stories and wisdom of this elder who will soon be killed by his labor in the fields but whose spirit and legacy remain undiminished. Antoine’s path is by no means easy, but the stakes only feel to him as if they are life and death; in José’s and Tortilla’s lives, those are the stakes, and there truly is no margin for error. Even as she encourages the audience to identify with José’s education into a life of virtuous striving, Palcy frames that identification – through the allusive comparison with Antoine Doinel as also through the alternate fates of Tortilla, Leopold, and others – to keep the audience equally aware of how rare and difficult a feat that education is, and how it continues to be essential, despite its fundamentally deadening form, its unfair administration, and its profound bankruptcy as a system.
Antoine Doinel is held back by accidental forces, bad luck, and poor decision-making; José struggles to succeed even when following the rules and with the full force of his family and friends behind him. Rather than a callow young mother and a beaten-down stepfather who want nothing to do with him, José has a determined and loving grandmother who does everything in her power to enable her grandson to get his education. And in the novel, he has a mother and a grandmother determined he will succeed. As Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau flatly explains, “Caribbean mothers knew that the only possible way off the plantations was through good education.”12 Saint-Just notes that Palcy’s film on this point repurposed Truffaut’s encouragement to her – “Je ne me fais pas trop de soucis pour vous, vous êtes une femme de combat” (“I don’t worry much about you; you’re a fighting woman”) – into the words of M’man Tine when she discovers the scholarship will not pay for José’s school.13 Or better, since the film quotes Zobel’s words directly, although giving them to M’man Tine rather than José’s mother Delia, we could say that Palcy spliced Truffaut’s and Zobel’s words into M’man Tine’s determination, as the film more generally splices those two models into a new, hybrid form of resistance.
Curiously, Palcy’s José is better adjusted and more at ease with his world than either Zobel’s José or Truffaut’s Antoine. Rather than isolated and rebellious, he makes friends easily and widely, and depends on those friends throughout for help and support. Palcy rewrites Jojo’s character and amplifies the chauffeur Carmen (played by her brother Joël Palcy) in ways that heighten their importance in José’s development and support. Whereas in the novel José must for the most part recognize and figure out how to remedy his missteps on his own – he even at one point is required to live alone in Fort-de-France, with consequences as nearly disastrous as Antoine’s brief attempt at life on his own – in the film, even his own early escapades on vacation are punished swiftly and left behind. Where Antoine has in the end nothing to fall back on but his own resources and imagination and the temporary freedom his whiteness gives him to wander the city unmolested, José imbibes the Africa-derived wisdom of elder Médouze, submits to the steely will of his grandmother, and learns how to bend what he can learn from the colonial system to his own purposes. It is no accident that Antoine’s chosen text is Balzac’s 1834 novel of a single-minded quest for knowledge, La recherche de l’absolu, whereas José’s composition is a journalistic exposé of the unfair conditions and human cost of the local sugarcane plantations. Antoine’s composition imagines the death of an invented grandfather; José’s bears witness to the actual death of a beloved elder. Antoine’s aesthetic education pits him against society; José’s provides him the material and intellectual tools to work for social change. So, while on the one hand Palcy’s changes risk the Victorian cliche of uplift for the worthy poor and doom for the rest; on the other hand, especially read in the contexts of Zobel’s novel, of Truffaut’s film, of her own and others’ life stories, and of the broader framework of colonialist education, these changes also suggest strategies for navigating a system whose structures and imaginary actively militate against that very narrative.
Studies in Blackness
Palcy’s film of Rue Cases-Nègres, I am arguing, at once highlights the sparse and fortuitous exceptions that somehow make it through a rigged and unfair system, delineates the accidental and also the very intentional ways in which that success comes to pass, and dramatizes the vast majority of cases in which the system fails completely – or, from a different perspective, in which the system succeeds exactly at what it is supposed to do, which is to maintain the status quo. This is another way to understand what Ménil has termed the film’s “variable identity” depending on the context within which it is interpreted.14 The film’s form incorporates that same variability. Just as Antoine Doinel reflected Truffaut’s own aesthetic path, so Rue Cases-Nègres reflects both novelist Joseph Zobel and adaptor Euzhan Palcy’s paths into art, as also those of Martinique-born lead actor Darling Légitimus and France-born Martinican film editor Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte. Truffaut’s is a story of individual escape and achievement, while Rue Cases-Nègres speaks directly for and to an entire people. As Ménil put it, “Half of the population of Martinique and Guadeloupe, then, came to see themselves, something they had not done in the case of other Antillean films which were also launched with equal amounts of resources and which were also likely to induce the same types of response and curiosity.”15 Zobel’s textured portrait in the novel’s three sections of plantation life, village life, and city life provides “a harsh political denunciation that criticizes béké exploitation, racism, mind-numbing poverty, and unanswered injustice” and limns the enduring spectral presence of Africa in Antillean life.16 In its form, the novel is also, again like Truffaut’s film, powerfully introspective; the rue Cases-Nègres is significant first and foremost for its impact on the author’s image in José, and its power as critique comes through the telling of his story. The novel concludes on José’s attempt to counter Jojo’s and Carmen’s “self-imposed gloom” by telling them how he did it for himself, for the story “which I knew best and which tempted me most at that time was quite similar to theirs. It is to those who are blind and those who block their ears that I must shout it.”17 José proposes his path, or a version of it, as one that anyone like him could potentially follow.
Given how powerfully gendered that story is and given how the primary function of the women in the novel is either to sacrifice their lives to José’s (his mother and grandmother) or to be left behind (his childhood friends back on the plantation), it is striking that Palcy was nevertheless able to recognize herself so strongly in it when she first read Zobel’s novel. In retrospect, that she was able to do so may go without saying: it self-evidently did happen that way. That she never chose to downplay the difficulty of that moment of recognition is evident in some of the other changes she made, changes that also resonate against the pattern of Truffaut’s film. Palcy’s film concludes, like Zobel’s novel, with a gesture at storytelling, but hers is a recursive and recuperative gesture rather than a solipsistic one. Having followed his grandmother back to her home in the rue Cases-Nègres to find M’man Tine dying, José resolves – and accepts – that he will always carry this place with him. It is not his story he will tell, in other words, but the story of the place and its people. This is a subtle change, but in its incorporation of a network of relationships and lives as the substance of the story it is a significant change. This change works similarly to Palcy’s decision to give Carmen two additional jobs to his sole employment as chauffeur in the novel: he captains a riverboat that connects Petit-Bourg and Fort-de-France; the boat becomes at times a shelter for José, at others an affective and a physical link between the two places, and at others the scene of José’s tutoring of Carmen. In the novel, the locations are barely and anonymously connected by a steamship plying the coast; in the film, they’re part of an enduring network of affective relationships that provide participants in that network with a modicum of agency within an otherwise hostile world.
Carmen’s third job is as usher in a Fort-de-France cinema. Both Zobel’s José and Truffaut’s Antoine are cinephiles; Antoine goes so far as stealing racy publicity stills of Harriet Andersson – Swedish star of Ingmar Bergman’s films – from the display window. In contrast, Palcy’s Carmen is, if in a minor capacity, actually part of the industry – and he thinks of the cinema in a proprietary way as he prepares for an actor career. We may not be expected to rate his chances of success in his dream very highly, but we are able to recognize that the aspiration is available to him, we are able to note that it is likely not very available to him, and we are able to credit him with possessing that same double awareness of his different options and of the odds attached to each one. Similarly, Palcy resituates José’s exchange in the novel with a cashier in a bar who claims to “detest this race whose color I wear” and José’s rejoinder that “I don’t think that any white person, for instance, ever shouted: ‘I hate my race’ when a white person committed some theft or murder” to a cashier in the cinema where Carmen works, whom in both cases he has a crush on.18 The critique has not changed; however, Palcy has contextualized it within a racialized spectacle – the popular cinema – that both encourages Miss Flora (Maïté Marquet) and Carmen to see themselves in it and militates against that same recognition. The critique is similarly there in the early scene where Leopold’s mother listens to Josephine Baker singing of a split identity in “J’ai deux amours,” a hit record of the era, not long before her husband’s death pulls her evanescent privilege and illusion of choice down in ruins around her. The form of Palcy’s film thus encourages a variable identity within the primary audience it speaks to – the Antillean audience.
Just as it was easy for TV5 interviewer Patrick Simonin to invoke the “positive legacy of colonialism” in order to assuage any direct criticism his implied white viewer may have felt from the film, it is easy for a white viewer in the global North to assimilate that variability within the familiarly single story of the exceptional worthy native earning meritocratic entry into global privilege via hard and virtuous labor. But even as it makes that familiar story available to the viewer, Palcy’s film is strewn with correctives to the story’s facile conclusions. The choice to make schooling a requirement rather than the privilege it is in the novel lays full claim to a right of French citizenship even as it by no means vitiates the critique of colonialism or of the unequal way education is administered to these students. The choice to have José’s playmates from the plantation also join him in school certainly works to streamline the narrative; it also tightens and strengthens the affective bonds in José’s life. The choice to have Tortilla qualify with José for the exam in Fort-de-France and then be forbidden by her father to do so starkly genders the exemplary quality of José’s journey in the film and, in retrospect, in the novel, as well.
That this path was nevertheless somehow available in different ways to Palcy, to editor Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, and to lead actor Darling Légitimus is an essential exception to that rule, just as José’s escape is an exception to what we clearly see as the rule around him of a dead-end life in the cane fields or as servants to the wealthy elite in Fort-de-France. Born in Martinique, Légitimus (1907-1999) moved to Paris at the age of 16 to become a dancer, performing in Josephine Baker’s Revue Nègre, posing for Picasso, and playing numerous roles on stage and screen. According to Palcy, although she and Légitimus would eventually work well together, the actor was originally forced on her by the film’s producers against her and Zobel’s original choice because “she looked more like Black women in American films like Gone with the Wind.”19 It is perhaps not surprising that Légitimus received the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival (the first Black woman to do so), where the film also received the Silver Lion. Like the film as a whole, her performance can be read either in the conventional tradition of the “mammy” figure, or more intersectionally and variably, in terms of what Lachelle Renée Hannickel calls, “a particularly Caribbean identity, one that is represented from the inside out,” conjured out of “the language of cinema.”20 As Hannickel writes of José and M’man Tine when they seek help from Carmen at the movie house where he works: “Juxtaposed with the movie posters, the patrons and the ticket agent, José and M’man Tine highlight the disparity between the Whiteness of Hollywood cinema and the Caribbeanness of Black Shack Alley.”21 The scene as Palcy stages it equally imagines the cinema as a space of Caribbeanness; for the framing of José and M’man Tine against Hollywood movie posters is immediately followed by Carmen’s offer that the boy sleep on his boat and Miss Flora’s volunteering of information about a recently vacated shack nearby.
Born and raised in France to a French mother and a Martinican father, Marie-Josephe Yoyotte (1929-2017) was the first Black woman editor in French cinema, getting her start during the New Wave on films by Truffaut, by documentarist Jean Rouch, and by writer-artist-filmmaker Jean Cocteau. She won three César awards and received editing credit on a total of seventy-four films between 1957 and her death. Yoyotte had never been to Martinique before Palcy insisted she join the shoot there: “Before you touch my film,” she told her, “you have to return to the country.”22 “It was a big deal for me to meet her,” Palcy added in retrospect. “She had worked with the very best, she was Black . . . and she was a woman.”23 As with Légitimus, Yoyotte’s status as both insider and outsider was essential to the film’s variable way of addressing its audiences.
The radical decision to syncopate the city-dwelling mother into M’man Tine’s composite figure has a similar function within the film’s form. Certainly, it streamlines the narrative, allowing the magisterial Légitimus – along with Douta Seck the cast’s only professional actor – to dominate the film from start to finish and to deepen the audience’s attachment to her so that we feel profoundly the effect of her death on José.24) Zobel’s prose can do that simply with concluding pages dedicated to José’s memory of and mediation on “Her black hands, swollen, hardened, cracked at every joint, and every crack encrusted with a sort of indelible mud”25; Palcy transfers that imagery into the cinematic language of narrative and figure. Zobel powerfully renders M’man Tine’s “conscious decision to die on the plantation, thus sacrificing herself” to the future of her daughter, and, especially, her grandson.26 In contrast, Palcy presents her audience with parallel, concurrent stories, granting equal determination, equal agency, and equal honor to the boy who escapes and to the woman who does not, pulling her viewer into both stories and exploring the ways they interconnect and rely on one another. This is not a cost-benefit analysis; that is, Palcy does not invite her audience to conclude that José’s success is the “positive legacy” of M’man Tine’s life. Instead, she invites us fully to attend to the truth of each one, as also to the truth of Médouze’s life and of all the others that she pulls into the film’s tightly woven narrative.
It would be reductive simply to label Palcy’s film “woman-centered” and Zobel’s novel or Truffaut’s film as “male-centered.” To do so flattens the nuances of the latter texts and overlooks the ways the affective dimensions of Sugar Cane Alley form a radical undercurrent to its ostensible conformism to a familiar narrative of success within the constraints of the colonial system. Much of the affective force of Palcy’s film closely resembles and draws on the deep emotional involvement Truffaut leads his audience to invest in the vulnerable, yearning ne’er-do-well Antoine Doinel. And Zobel’s first-person narrator similarly pulls the reader into the young man’s world, with an interiority far more developed than the film’s José, as also are other characters such as Jojo and Carmen. But Palcy’s film – in the types of interiority it privileges, the types of relationships and networks it establishes, its exploration of the social contexts around the characters, and its encouragement of the audience to variable positionalities and awareness of those positionalities – prompts a kind of reflection in which class, race, and gender are present as categories to be analyzed and understood critically as they are essences to be felt affectively. In Ménil’s formulation: “It [the film] asks for my own position, even unconsciously, even if it pretends to address a universal spectator.”27
All three texts belong to the genre of “a portrait of the artist,” an artist who emerges in various ways at the end of the work, primed to tell us, eventually, the story we have just finished reading or watching. Traditionally, that portrait forms a closed, or at least a recursive loop, circling us back to the beginning to reencounter the work as a conscious creation of the author/artist whom we now think we know. But we cannot close that circle with Palcy’s film, or at least not in any simple or singular way. This fact complicates, for instance, Ebrahim’s otherwise persuasive observation that Palcy’s rendering of Médouze as an indigenous and orally based educational figure counter to the French colonial system in ways that he is not in Zobel’s novel nevertheless omits that Tortilla is left out of this patriarchal exchange as much as she is excluded from the path of formal education.28 For Ménil, “[T]he lesson of the story takes on a whole different meaning depending on whether one feels the proximity of the cane fields or whether one suddenly sees oneself as another Jose, but a Jose who would already have travelled across the ocean?”29 Bifurcated location is not the only positionality at play in the film’s variable ways of addressing its spectators, however; like Miss Flora the cinema cashier or the recorded voice of Josephine Baker and the wife listening to her, the women in this film have no unified or nonconflicted way to experience their identity – race and gender are always intruding. We know that Palcy, like any viewer, is indeed able to identify deeply with José, regardless of any difference from him. But we also recognize her positionality in the other paths: in Tortilla’s exclusion from a chance to escape; in M’man Tine’s conscious choice to sacrifice her life to her grandson’s. There is ambiguity in the end of Zobel’s novel, and all of these insights are available to some degree in his novel, if not nearly as readily as in Palcy’s film. And there is ambiguity in Antoine’s final freeze-frame, resolved only in the viewer’s extradiegetic knowledge that Truffaut himself did somehow get from that frozen moment in time to make this film, and not only survive but flourish.
But the stakes are so much higher in Sugar Cane Alley. Condé’s critique of the film as much as Ménil’s praise recognizes those stakes. Nor are those stakes resolved within the world of the film; it leaves open and necessarily variable the different possibilities. What is at stake is the ability to articulate them on this scale and to plot the ways they interweave. This is the other way of looking at that plagiarism scene. In Zobel, it’s simply another instance of injustice and misunderstanding in an unequal power dynamic that José must learn to negotiate just like any other. In Truffaut, it’s just another straw piling up in a bundle that clarifies beyond doubt to Antoine and to his audience that there is no future within the system, only outside and against it. It’s essential for Zobel that José be innocent and that he work through any injustice because there’s no future for him outside of the system – there is no outside of the system available to him. It’s essential for Truffaut that Antoine be guilty in letter but not in spirit because it’s another symptom of the bankruptcy of a system that asks the wrong questions and values the wrong responses. It’s essential for Palcy that José be innocent in letter and in spirt, that he protest, that his protest finally be recognized and his achievement be fully rewarded because that’s the incalculably rare exception that both proves the rule and proves the need to go through the motions regardless. After all, it happened to her. But because José’s story is not hers, it’s not simply a unique story of exceptionality, but part of the critique of the system. In other words, it’s not proof that the system works; it patently does not. Because they don’t resolve into a unitary José as avatar for the adult filmmaker, the tightly interwoven affective, social, and economic networks of the film’s lovingly rendered lifeworld damn that world even as they document its rare successes, its numberless miseries, and its essential humanity.
This openness is especially evident in José’s pledge at the end of the film to the spirits of his grandmother and Mr. Médouze. As Sarah Trembath notes, the language of Palcy’s script here strongly echoes the language and sentiments of Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem Return to My Native Land (1936)30; like Zobel, Palcy, and José, Césaire had been to school in Fort-de-France before completing his education in Paris. Written upon his return to Martinique, the poem was the beginning of a long life spent bending the tools of the colonial system to a project of artistic, cultural, and political decolonization. If Truffaut’s simultaneously patronizing and encouraging assurance that “you’re a fighting woman” signaled Palcy’s pathway within the system, Césaire points to the decolonizing project that just as deeply informs her film.
To discard the film’s hard-won humanity because it could be mistaken for a rationalization of colonialism would be as short-sighted as discarding the hard-won humanity of Zobel’s novel and Truffaut’s film because they never step outside of their singularly masculine perspective, or discounting their profound influence on Palcy’s film for similar reasons. It is important to ground any analysis of Zobel’s and Truffaut’s texts in their context of a Cold War masculinity in which any nonrevolutionary growth or change would be imagined as coming through an individual consciousness formed in the crucible of coming to know its selfhood. And it’s just as important to ground Palcy’s film, as Condé does, in a late-Cold-War nascent neoliberalism that easily assimilated the fragmented yet affective figure of José into a narrative of benevolent empowerment from above and overlooked the decolonizing countercurrent grounded in Médouze that resisted that narrative. That doesn’t mean we can’t conclude that Palcy’s film may tell us more about the outside forces that form an artist than Zobel’s novel or Truffaut’s film can, or that the polyphonic, open-ended analysis of race and gender might not have more to contribute to a conversation on those topics within colonialism and education at this moment than those other texts. For me, what’s essential is to recognize the kinds of work each of these texts can do or is best suited for doing, and which work it cannot or is ill-suited for doing, and how that analysis itself changes according to time and place. I hope that this essay has done some of its own work in that direction.
Author’s Note: I’m grateful to writer, scholar, and spoken-word artist Sarah Trembath for sharing her longtime research on sugarcane, for inviting me to join her Lazuli Reading series discussion of “Sugar Cane and Blood in the Artistic Imagination,” and for talking over the ideas from that discussion with me as they developed into the arguments in this essay (although she should in no other respects be held responsible for any unforeseen directions they took).
- Patrick Simonin, “Rue Cases-Nègres: Interview d’Euzhan PALCY,” L’invité, TV5 France, 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbUFL8FnOsk. [↩]
- Susan Linfield, “Sugar Cane Alley: An Interview with Euzhan Palcy,” Cineaste 13.4 (1984): 43-44, at 43. [↩]
- Linfield, “Interview with Euzhan Palcy,” 43. [↩]
- Maryse Condé, “Euzhan Palcy, Réalisatrice film, Rue Cases-Nègres,” Sound recording, Rare Book Manuscript Library, Columbia University: https://dx.doi.org/10.7916/d8-5j0v-3g41. Zobel’s translator, Keith Q. Warner, expressed a similar sentiment in his 1979 introduction, commenting that, “It is unfortunate that the note of optimism on which this aspect of the novel ends is cruelly belied by the realities of the contemporary situation in the French West Indies as well as many of the other islands as a whole. The very education to which the youth aspires still serves to no avail in the face of rampant unemployment and unemployability.” (Zobel, Black Shack Alley, xv-xxvii, at xx). [↩]
- Haseenah Ebrahim, “‘Sugar Cane Alley’: Re-Reading Race, Class and Identity in Zobel’s ‘La Rue Cases Nègres,’” Literature/Film Quarterly 30.2 (2002): 146-52, at 149. [↩]
- Joseph Zobel, Black Shack Alley (1950), trans. Keith Q. Warner (New York: Penguin, 2020), 190-91. [↩]
- Zobel, Black Shack Alley, 166. [↩]
- Zobel, Black Shack Alley, 191. [↩]
- “Godfather” is Palcy’s term. See, for instance, Sarah-Tai Black, “Legendary Filmmaker Euzhan Palcy: ‘If They Won’t Let Us in the Door We Will Come in through the Window!’” Toronto Globe and Mail, March 18, 2021: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/article-legendary-filmmaker-euzhan-palcy-if-they-wont-let-us-in-the-door-we/. [↩]
- Sophie F. Saint-Just, “Sa Nou Yé: Filmmaking Practices as Formulations of Identity in Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique from 1976 to 2011,” PhD Thesis, City University of New York (2013), 21. [↩]
- Alain Ménil, “Rue Cases Nègres, or the Antilles from the Inside,” Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, ed. Mbye Cham (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992), 156-75, at 170. The essay was originally published in Présence Africaine in 1984. [↩]
- Patrick Chamoiseau, “Foreword,” in Zobel, Black Shack Alley, vii-xiii, at xii. [↩]
- Saint-Just, “Sa Nou Yé,” 22. [↩]
- Ménil, “Antilles from the Inside,” 157. [↩]
- Ménil, “Antilles from the Inside,” 155. [↩]
- Chamoiseau, “Foreword,” xiii. [↩]
- Zobel, Black Shack Alley, 221. [↩]
- Zobel, Black Shack Alley, 205-6. [↩]
- Stéphane Krzesinski, “Entretien: Euzhan Palcy” (2010); in Euzhan Palcy, Rue Case-Nègres, Collège au Cinéma, Dossier 186, ed. Stephan Krezinski and Michel Cyprien (nd), 13; https://julianwhiting.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/rue-cases-nc3a8gres-deuzhan-palcy.pdf; accessed April 30, 2021. [↩]
- Lachelle Renée Hannickel, “From Cultural Transgressions to Literary Transformations: Recasting Feminine Archetypes in French Caribbean Women’s Autobiography,” PhD Dissertation, University of California Santa Barbara (2007), 111. [↩]
- Hannickel, “French Caribbean Women’s Autobiography,” 114. [↩]
- Mathilde Dumazet, “Mort de la monteuse de cinéma Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte,” Le Monde, July 29, 2017: https://www.lemonde.fr/cinema/article/2017/07/28/mort-de-la-monteuse-de-cinema-marie-josephe-yoyotte_5166175_3476.html. [↩]
- Dumazet, “Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte.” [↩]
- In her feminist reading of the film, Christine M. M. Gaudry-Hudson similarly observes how Palcy recasts M’man Tine’s death scene to “make this character the focal point” (“‘Raising Cane’: A Feminist Rewriting of Joseph Zobel’s Novel ‘Sugar Cane Alley’ by Film Director Euzhan Palcy,” CLA Journal 46.4 : 478-93, at 486. [↩]
- Zobel, Black Shack Alley, 220. [↩]
- Chamoiseau, “Foreword,” xii. [↩]
- Ménil, “Antilles from the Inside,” 159. [↩]
- Ebrahim, “Sugar Cane Alley,” 147. [↩]
- Ménil, “Antilles from the Inside,” 159. [↩]
- Sarah Trembath, email communication, 2021 [↩]