Long time readers of this blog may remember Med Hondo, the Mauritanian director, producer, screenwriter & actor who is, essentially one of African cinema’s “fathers.” His directorial debut, “Soleil O,” was made in 1967, a year after Ousmane Sembene’s first feature “La Noire de…”
“Soleil O” screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival where it received critical acclaim. He went on to direct some 10 feature films, and acted in 18 others.
And it’s one of the films he directed, titled “West Indies,” that I’m drawing your attention to.
The full title is “West Indies: Les Negres Marrons De La Liberte” (“West Indies: The Black Freedom Fighters,” specifically the Maroons). It was initially released in 1979, and undoubtedly was a landmark in African cinema; and it’s also a film that many probably haven’t heard of, and thus haven’t seen, but really need to!
Good luck finding it on Amazon, Netflix, or even Ebay. From what I was told, it doesn’t exist commercially on any home video formats; not even VHS apparently.
“I wanted to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American trade mark. I wanted to show that each people on earth has its own musical comedy, its own musical tragedy and its own thought shaped through its own history.” ~ Med Hondo on “West Indies.”
A project that took him upwards of 7 years to get made, it’s an absolutely stunning piece of work – a $1.35 million (about $4 million today) color musical epic film, made possible by an international cadre of investors – although much of the funding came from within the African continent. I can say with some certainty that it was one of the most expensive African films made by an African filmmaker at the time, and adjusted for inflation, probably still is one of the most expensive African films; although the story it tells takes place primarily in the West Indies, as the title states, and France.
In a nutshell, it documents the experiences of people of African descent, starting from the slave trade, to colonialism, to post-colonialism, to neocolonialism, and satirizes French imperialism in both continental Africa and the West Indies.
The fact that it was adapted from a stage play (“Les Negriers – The Slavers -by Daniel Boukman”) makes sense, because it’s filmed entirely on a stage set; I give the production designer mega-kudos for the work they did in recreating a number of different worlds, all using the very same location and space. It’s impressive work that doesn’t always appear to be happening on a stage.
It’s a scathing musical satire; avant-garde grand theater.
The film was released in 1979 in France, with Hondo a bit ambivalent about showing it to white French audiences who might not appreciate seeing themselves portrayed in an unflattering light.
Initial reviews weren’t stellar, not surprisingly, although it was said at the time that black audiences loved and exalted not only the film, but also the Pan-Africanist spirit in which it was made – featuring a cast and crew from across the Diaspora.
Of course there was criticism from some black people, who didn’t appreciate the film’s satirical comedic and musical elements, which they felt made something of a mockery of the rather grave subject matter. Sound familiar, 37 years later?
But it’s a technological and artistic achievement in African cinema history, and not even just continental Africa; the entire diaspora. And it’s a shame that Hondo is largely unknown beyond maybe academic and cineaste circles, and that the film isn’t widely available!
This is the kind of material that’s begging for a Criterion Collection revamp and release!
If it happens to be screening anywhere near you – more than likely at an academic institution, you should go out of your way to check it out.
I want to see it again, because there’s plenty to chew on, so that I can give it the proper review it deserves.
As you’d expect, there’s no trailer for West Indies; I couldn’t even locate a good still image to use, and certainly no clips.
This is significant African cinema history, and I’m always glad to share films like this that many of you haven’t seen.
While a filmmaker like Lars Von Trier is praised for the minimalist stage sets he used in films like “Dogville” and “Mandalay, “here’s an African filmmaker who did something somewhat similar, except with fuller, more lush sets/production design, and, I’d say, done a lot better – and 30 years earlier, by the way!
The time has come to restore and re-release West Indies so new audiences can *discover* it – especially as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of another seminal work of African cinema, “La Noire De…” (“Black Girl”) by Ousmane Sembene, which was recently remastered, restored, and re-released! The timing couldn’t be better.