Skip to main content

Sembène, Ousmane 1923–2007

Ousmane Sembène 1923-2007

(Also known as Sembène Ousmane) Senegalese novelist, screenplay writer, and short fiction writer.

For additional information on Sembène's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.


Sembène is widely considered the greatest African filmmaker of the twentieth century and is counted among that continent's most revered fiction writers. His works, which are based largely on Sembène's Marxist-Leninist ideology, typically depict underprivileged groups or individuals facing opposition from a corrupt, bureaucratic colonial system and from degrading, no less brutal traditional customs such as polygamy and female genital mutilation.


Sembène was born in 1923 in the Casamance region of southern Senegal. His family was from the Muslim Wolof ethnic group and Sembène attended both Islamic and French schools. When he was fourteen years old, he was expelled for fighting with his school principal. Sembène briefly tried working for his father—a fisherman—but seasickness prevented him from earning a living in that profession. In 1938 he was sent to live with relatives in Dakar, where he performed a variety of odd jobs. In 1944 Sembène was drafted into the French colonial army to serve during World War II, participating in the Allied invasion of Italy and the movement to liberate France from Germany. On returning to Dakar in 1947, Sembène took part in the Senegalese railway strike that temporarily crippled French colonialism in West Africa and rallied African nationalism. Later in 1947, Sembène moved to Marseilles, France, where he found work as a longshoreman. In 1950 Sembène joined the French Communist Party and the following year an accident on the docks left him with a broken back; these two events were seminal to the formation of his understanding of social and political theory. Unable to do the difficult work on the docks, Sembène spent months frequenting libraries and museums, educating himself and ultimately becoming a respected intellectual figure. He channeled his experiences into writing novels and went on to join groups supporting liberation from colonial rule in Indochina and Algeria. Sembène returned to Senegal in 1960, after that country achieved independence from French rule. Although he had achieved great success with his novels internationally, Sembène realized that his writing reached only a limited readership in Senegal—where the majority of people are illiterate and speak the indigenous Wolof language—so he turned to filmmaking. He saw film as an effective medium for mass communication and spent a year studying cinematography in the Soviet Union under noted filmmaker Marc Donskol. In 1969 Sembène co-founded the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), held biennially in Burkina Faso. Through the 1970s Sembène's socialist themes frequently provoked the censorship of the Senegalese government. Nevertheless, he continued to denounce the Westernized elite in postcolonial Africa as well as the oppressive nature of many African customs. Sembène died in Dakar in 2007, after a long illness.


Sembène's works are based largely on his socialist philosophy and his experiences living and working in Africa and France. His first novel, Le docker noir (1956; The Black Docker), concerns a black dock worker who writes a book that is stolen by a white woman. While not considered one of his strongest novels, it established a pattern for his subsequent works, which depict Africans who fall victim to a corrupt social or political system. Most of Sembène's fiction is based on actual events—for example, a newspaper article on the suicide of a black maid in France became the basis of his film Le noire de … (1966; Black Girl), which was based on his short story of the same name and won a Cannes Film Festival Special Prize. One of Sembène's most acclaimed novels, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God's Bits of Wood) recounts the railworker strikes of 1947-48 on the Dakar-Niger line, in which Sembène participated. Sembène's films all provide glimpses into the lives of people who are socially and economically exploited, especially under colonial regimes. His first short film, Borom Sarret (1963), details one tragic day in the life of a Senegalese cart driver. In Emitaï (1971) French colonists fight a resistance group made up of native Senegalese at the end of World War II; as in other Sembène films, the women in Emitaï are the strongest resisters and serve as the link between past and future as they maintain and pass on tribal history and customs.

Xala (1974), based on Sembène's novel of the same name, takes up the broader issue of elitism and hypocrisy in post-independence African countries, but with a decidedly satirical tone. After appropriating government funds to finance his marriage to his third wife, the protagonist, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, is cursed with xala, or impotence, by a group of beggars he has routinely mistreated. Unable to consummate his new marriage, El Hadji loses the respect of family and colleagues. To remove the curse, he ultimately succumbs to the demands of the beggars, who spit on him while his first wife and her children watch. In Camp de Thiaroye (1988) Sembène returned to the historical film genre, portraying the true story of a World War II camp where Senegalese soldiers who fought with the French Resistance waited to return home, only to be cheated out of their severance pay by the French commanders. When they mutinied, the French massacred the entire camp. In Guelwaar (1992)—which is also based on a true story—Sembène addressed tension between Christian and Muslim Africans. When the title character dies, his body is mistakenly buried in a Muslim cemetery. When the error is discovered, the Christians attempt to take back the body.

Sembène's last three films comprise a trilogy in which he explores the ambiguous role of women in contemporary African society. In L'heroisme au quotidian (1999), a group of women in a small village in Senegal become empowered when they suddenly begin receiving radio signals from women outside the village on their small battery-powered radios. Faat Kiné (2000) tells the story of a young divorced mother negotiating life in modern Dakar while still influenced in many ways by her traditional upbringing. Sembène's most lauded film was his last. In Moolaadé (2004), Sembène took up the volatile subject of female genital mutilation—the traditional custom of excising, usually with a razor blade and without anesthesia, the clitoris and sometimes also sewing the labia closed until marriage. An excruciating procedure, FGM, as it is known, remains highly controversial and some African countries have outlawed it. Moolaadé concerns a small village where four girls have sought sanctuary with an older woman to avoid having the procedure done to them.


Often called the "father of African cinema," Sembène was lauded for the warmth and humor he brought to difficult subject matter, particularly in films such as Xala and Faat Kine. The overall critical view is that his works were bleak yet hopeful because of their focus on the power of collective groups to enact societal change. Beginning with his second film, Borom Sarret, Sembène won numerous awards at international film festivals, although his works were frequently censored within Senegal. Both Camp de Thiaroye and Guelwaar won prizes at the Venice Film Festival, while Moolaadé was honored at Cannes and won the American Association of Film Critics' Best Foreign Film of the Year prize for 2004.


Le docker noir [The Black Docker] (novel) 1956

O Pays, mon beau peuple! (novel) 1957

Les bouts de bois de Dieu [God's Bits of Wood] (novel) 1960

Voltaïque [Tribal Scars and Other Stories] (short stories) 1962

Borom Sarret (screenplay) 1963

L'Harmattan, Volume I: Référendum (novel) 1964

Niaye (screenplay) 1964

Véhi-Ciosane ou Blanche Genese, suivi du Mandat [The Money Order, with White Genesis] (novellas) 1965

La noire de … [Black Girl] (screenplay) 1966

Mandabi [The Money Order] (screenplay) 1968

Taaw (screenplay) 1970

Emitaï [God of Thunder] (screenplay) 1971

Xala (novel and screenplay) 1974

Ceddo (screenplay) 1976

Le dernier de l'empire. 2 vols. [The Last of the Empire] (novel) 1981

Niiwam suivi de Taaw (novellas) 1987

Camp de Thiaroye (screenplay) 1988

Guelwaar (screenplay) 1992

L'heroisme au quotidian (screenplay) 1999

Faat Kiné (screenplay) 2000

Moolaadé (screenplay) 2004


Ousmane Sembène with Sada Niang and Samba Gadjigo (interview date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Sembène, Ousmane, Sada Niang, and Samba Gadjigo. "Interview with Ousmane Sembène." Research in African Literatures 26, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 174-78.

[In the following interview, Sembène discusses the themes of international aid to poor countries, the "Africanization" of the Catholic Church in Africa, and major characters in his film Guelwaar.]

As far as I am concerned, I no longer support notions of purity. Purity has become a thing of the past.

On 20 February 1993, President Compaoré of Burkina Faso opened the 13th Panafrican Festival of Cinema at Ouagadougou (FESPACO) at the Stade du 4 mai, Ouagadougou's main soccer stadium, with thousands of people from around the world in attendance. This second largest film festival on the African continent was first held in 1969 as "Semaine du Cinéma Africain" with Ousmane Sembène as one of its founders. Since then, Sembène has acquired the status of a pioneer and taken part in and witnessed the mushrooming of African cinema.

His latest feature film, Guelwaar, was chosen for the opening ceremony at Cinema Neerwaya, in recognition of his long-standing contribution. The film, which Sembène had voluntarily withdrawn from the official festival competition, generated so much enthusiasm and controversy that it put him virtually at the epicenter of the Hotel Independance. It was there that we had the opportunity to meet and talk with him about the film and other issues in cinema and literature.

[Niang]: How wasGuelwaar received in Senegal?

[Sembène]: Guelwaar has not been shown in Senegal yet. When the film arrived in the country, it coincided with the campaign for the presidential elections.1 Perhaps they will mention it on the radio and television programs, but this is not certain. I had asked that a gala be held for its premiere in Dakar, but this was rejected. Guelwaar deals with the issue of state begging. Begging has existed in Senegal from times immemorial, but we have spent the last thirty years in Senegal begging for help from Europe, America, Japan, and Germany. It has been estimated that Senegal receives one billion CFA francs per day in foreign aid.2 One does not need to do a thorough analysis of the situation to realize that there is a waste somewhere, but, above all, that the country cannot survive from begging raised into a state policy. If, for example, somebody falls near you, you may help that person to get back on his/her feet. If your neighbor's house catches fire, you may bring water to help put it out. You may even feed him/her for a day or two, and help rebuild his/her house; but it is impossible to be available to him/her and provide help all the time.

[Niang]: Do you make any distinction between the Wolof "yelwaan" and the French "quémander"?3

The term "yelwaan" refers to street beggars. It applies to people stricken by a physical deformity, blindness, or some type of disability and to whom others provide assistance. But when it comes to the state, it is an entirely different matter. In traditional Africa, begging was not as widespread as it is today. Some household heads would even go so far as to refuse to consume food that was offered as alms, or forbid their children to eat at their neighbor's. This being said, sterile women or women who had undergone a miscarriage were required to humble themselves through begging. Such women had to humble themselves in front of every housegate so as to defeat the spell they were suffering from. This type of begging had a symbolic value. Nowadays, in African cities, begging has become the expression of a social and economic predicament.

[Gadjigo]: Is it fair to say then that while you condemn "quémander," you look more kindly to instances of "yelwaan," that is, begging brought about by a physical disability or poverty? It seems to me that, in our present context, these two concepts share a common source, don't they?

I have dealt with this question in Xala. In Guelwaar, the act of begging is of a different kind.

[Gadjigo]: Yet even inXala you seem to suggest that the main character has been reduced to begging by a social injustice. His plight seems to point to a failure of state social and economic programs in Senegal, and you take up this theme again inGuelwaar. In fact, everything seems to hold together.

You are right, everything holds together, but it is up to you to analyze it and make up your mind on it. In Guelwaar, the donations regularly made to the African continent assume the features of an economic and political program totally geared towards foreign aid. These donations are humiliating both to Africans who receive them and to those living outside the continent. We know what goes on in Somalia, in Yugoslavia, but we also know what is bound to happen in Chad, in Senegal. The situation is such that those who govern us today no longer make the effort to try and find solutions. By the same token, we also know that most of these donations—which I condemn but which are made to us—are used for political gains and for the benefit of influential voters.

[Gadjigo]: The last scene ofGuelwaar features, in the foreground, young people tearing open bags of food donations, and spilling the content of these on the ground,as a symbolic act of rejection and refusal. Up to this scene, these children had figured in the film only as props. Now, in many of your other films, it is women to whom you grant this role (rejection and refusal), thus forcing them to break out of their silence and marginal existence. Why such a change?

In 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, all the revolts that took place in Africa were carried out by high school children. These revolts were neither the work of political parties, churches, mosques, nor of trade unions. Children initiated them on their own.

[Niang]: Guelwaar also features an opposition between an orthodox Christianity symbolized by the priest and a kind of contextualized Christianity symbolized by the children carrying a crooked cross.

The Catholic Church is Africanizing itself by using elements borrowed from other sources, which suggests a certain cultural dynamism. When the pope goes to visit voodoo priests, imagine that there was a time when these priests would have been killed (not visited), since all African religions were considered savage. But these religions have not died off. Our ancient religions have not disappeared; they are present and have taken different shapes.

[Niang]: Are you suggesting that these conflicts do not exist as far Islam is concerned?

Islam, too, has its own problems; but one cannot deal with all these issues in the same film.

[Gadjigo]: Let us turn to the language issue. Last night, some spectators were frustrated that the version ofGuelwaar that had been shown was in French. Some expressed the opinion that the movie would have been more expressive if shown in Wolof.

This was only one show. The original which you will probably have the opportunity to see is in Wolof with English subtitles. The Wolof film would have been better in Ouagadougou, but how many spectators would be able to read the subtitles?

[Niang]: Are you suggesting that, in this case, the orality of the film is more accessible in French?


[Niang]: This film incorporates certain aspects of the African diaspora and of panafricanism. Everyone speaking French in it does so with an African accent. There is even a French West Indian accent in the speech of the fourth wife. What meaning do you assign to such linguistic diversity?

As far as I am concerned, I no longer support notions of purity. Purity has become a thing of the past. We have to open up to the diaspora for their and our own sake. I constantly question myself. I am neither looking for a school nor for a solution but asking questions and making others think.

[Niang]: But you seem to have taken, in this film, a different approach. InCamp de Thiaroye there was an African-American soldier, inCeddo you had featured African captives, but inGuelwaar you opt for a woman who makes the trip back to Africa and who re-integrates herself into the Senegalese milieu. Yet, it is also this fourth wife who is least accepting of the social constraints and who rebels against these.

She is an outsider who brings with her another culture. Some things she can accept, others she cannot accept.

[Gadjigo]: Xala features what could be referred to as a "a main character": El Hadj Kader Bèye.Le mandat has Dieng. Is there a main character inGuelwaar ?

Often, there is no main character in my films. They are group stories. At a given time, at a given hour, each character plays a little role and the sum of these roles make up the physiognomy of the group.

[Niang]: The imam inGuelwaar is rather unusual….

I want you to know that Guelwaar is inspired by a true story. The burial actually took place.

[Gadjigo]: This imam corresponds totally to this type of character in your work until the moment he hits someone, utters insults, and blasphemes. It is only then that he starts acquiring a positive image and becomes a unifying element between Catholics and Muslims. It is when he stops behaving like an imam that you have assigned to him a positive value.

The imam himself states that members of both groups have grown together. The Catholic elder states, "You are a credit to humankind," and immediately positions himself outside the religious context. These two religions are perceived in this film as factors of division; they have come from the outside and break the harmony of a world in danger of "falling apart," to use Achebe's phrase.

[Gadjigo]: Oumar Faye inO pays, mon beau peuple, Bakayoko inLes bouts de bois de Dieu, and Pierre Henry Thioune, alias Guelwaar, these are hard characters who sometimes forget that the men they lead are humans.

It is because they are leaders.

[Niang]: They are also very lonely characters.

They are human and thus complex beings.

[Gadjigo]: One is struck by the tendency you have of creating characters who are ahead of their community and who grow rough whenever their communities do not follow them.

Leading a group is difficult, especially for one who wants to be responsible and stay clear-sighted.

[Gadjigo]: Aren't these characters anachronistic?

I don't know.

[Niang]: What does FESPACO4represent for you?

Nowhere are so many African films shown at once, nowhere do so many African filmmakers ever come together. And this event is taking place on the African continent. Besides, the organizers of this event are not politicians. One may assume any ideological tendency, any political orientation that one wishes. This gathering is neither a church congregation, nor a mosque community, nor a chapel group.

[Gadjigo]: Yes, but it seems that during the Sankara years, the Burkinabe population was more involved in the organization of this event. This year, I can assure you that the local population was visibly absent.

To each leader, his/her impact on his era. As far as we are concerned, we have seen many leaders come and go and we want to be eternal. For us, the domestic issues which crop up during the FESPACO are of secondary importance to the festival.

[Gadjigo]: One often hears, "Monsieur Sembène has a good knowledge of Senegalese society." I would like to think that your work does not limit itself to reflecting the present and that you are after all a visionary, one who constructs a future.

That is what is required of the artist. Just look at all these people jostling each other to see a film, who would like to see me as if I were in a zoo cage. The truth is that we manage to reach them somewhere inside of themselves, that we give voice to their preoccupations. We give voice to their inner screams.

[Gadjigo]: What direction would you like to see African cinema take?

My wish is that young African filmmakers assume their social responsibilities, that they become the voices of their peoples, of their time, that there might be a spirit of competitiveness among them. Someone who says, "I am like my father," or "I have done as my father has done," pays tribute to his father, but someone who says, "I have achieved more than my father has," has outgrown his father.

[Niang]: Ousmane Sembène, thank you.


1. February-March 1993 presidential elections in Senegal. Following the announcement of the results which gave the majority to the Socialist Party of Senegal led by M. Abdou Diouf, several days of rioting ensued in Dakar.

2. At the time this interview was conducted, the one hundred percent devaluation of the CFA franc had not yet taken place.

3. Even though often translated into English as "beg," this term also contains semantic features that imply deferring one's agency to the benefactor. The entrapment and humiliation that ensues is perhaps best articulated by Mandabi's Dieng in the last scene of that movie. "Yelwaan," on the other hand, usually presupposes a religious (traditional or otherwise) context.

4. Festival Panafricain du Cinéma à Ouagadougou.

Josef Gugler and Oumar Cherif Diop (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Gugler, Josef, and Oumar Cherif Diop. "Ousmane Sembène's Xala: The Novel, the Film, and Their Audiences." Research in African Literatures 29, no. 2 (summer 1998): 147-58.

[In the following essay, Gugler and Diop analyze the significant differences between Sembène's novel and the film version of Xala, questioning the author's intention of appealing to the widest possible Senegalese film audience.]

The artist must in many ways be the mouth and the ears of his people. In the modern sense, this corresponds to the role of the griot in traditional African culture. The artist is like a mirror. His work reflects and synthesizes the problems, the struggles, and the hopes of his people.

          Ousmane Sembène, "Filmmakers and African Culture" 80

Ousmane Sembène is exceptional in combining two roles: the distinguished writer is also the foremost film director in Africa South of the Sahara.1Xala is perhaps the finest among his many film productions.2 It is complex in plot, diverse in characterizations, and rich in satirically observed detail.3 The film successfully marries the seductive lure of the medium to the director's didactic purpose. Xala also offers an excellent opportunity to compare Sembène's approaches to his two chosen media. Even though the film was released just one year after the publication of his novel Xala in 1973, it presents a major departure. Some of the differences between the novel and the film can be understood as Sembène's judicious adaptations to the different medium. But there is also a clear shift in emphasis—from denouncing the parasitic Senegalese bourgeoisie to exposing the neocolonial political regime—that defies explanation in terms of the different requirements of the two media: the artist's mirror reflects different perspectives on the problems, the struggles, and the hopes of his people—he addresses different audiences.

Novel and film both tell of affliction. The curse of the xala that has inflicted impotence on El Hadji Abdou Kader Bèye on his wedding night with his third wife,4 takes on a symbolic connotation as the impotence that afflicts the emerging Senegalese bourgeoisie becomes apparent. El Hadji represents, experiences, and eventually articulates the impotence of his class. Sembène entertains us with the satirical account of El Hadji's physical impotence, but eventually confronts us with the economic and cultural impotence of the bourgeoisie that cripples the nation.5

The Senegalese bourgeoisie fails to accomplish a productive function. Its representatives are looking for quick profits, whatever the means. They are parasites trafficking in allotments of subsidized rice and diverting supplies intended for drought victims. These avowed businessmen got where they are by exploiting others—El Hadji defrauded his illiterate kin. Instead of making productive investments, they spend their ill-acquired resources lavishly in absurd imitations of foreign consumer culture—to the point where El Hadji bankrupts himself. Sembène's acerbic account of their transgressions makes us agree that they deserve to be spit upon.6

The story demonstrates that the members of the Chamber of Commerce constitute only a pseudo-bourgeoisie. The impotence of these compradores is poignantly portrayed in El Hadji's cri de coeur as he faces the expulsion from the Chamber of Commerce that will seal his ruin:7

We are dirt grubbers! Who owns the banks? The insurance companies? The factories? The construction companies? The wholesale trade? The movie theaters? The book shops? The hotels? etc., etc., etc. All these and more besides are out of our control. Here, we are just crabs in a basket. We want the colonialist's place. We got it. This Chamber is the proof. What has changed, in general or in particular? Nothing. The colonialist has become stronger, more powerful, hidden inside us, as we are here assembled. He promises us the left-overs of the feast if we behave ourselves. Beware anyone who wants to upset his digestion, who wants a bigger slice of the profit. And we? … Dirt grubbers, agents, distributors, in our fatuity we call ourselves "businessmen." Businessmen without funds.

          (139, our translation)8

El Hadji's request for a bank loan of CFA 500,000, equivalent—allowing for two decades of inflation—to less than $10,000, conveys the limited nature of the resources of a member of the now all-African Chamber of Commerce. The ultimate decision over El Hadji's future lies with the presumably French boss of the bank official he implores.

Women are central to the story: some demonstrate the cultural alienation of the nouveaux riches, others present alternative models.9 The men, in one of the rare instances where they draw on their cultural heritage, affirm their commitment to polygamy not for traditional ends—to bring labor to the kinship group and assure its continuity—but simply to enhance their status. El Hadji's second wife, Oumi N'Doye, serves to project the image of a "modern" Westernized couple, his third wife, Ngoné, to confirm his economic success.

In sharp contrast, Sembène presents two female characters of integrity, one traditional, the other modern. Adja Awa Astou, El Hadji's first wife, portrays quiet dignity, patient devotion to the principles of a Muslim marriage, loyalty to her husband even in his ruin. Rama, their daughter, embodies the future, reborn Africa, a society that will draw on its own language and culture while emancipating women from patriarchal traditions.

The beggars constitute the counterpart to the bourgeoisie. 10 Their poverty provides a telling contrast to the conspicuous consumption of the nouveaux riches. Reduced by the greed, abuse of power, and cultural alienation of the arrivistes to the status of pariahs, they can be seen to represent but the extreme image of the masses who are similarly cheated and robbed. As it turns out, the beggars have a measure of power: their blind leader Gorgui has put the xala on El Hadji, and he can take it away again.11 Sembène's portrayal of the beggars echoes Fanon's faith in the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat rather than Marx's dismissive view of it.12

Novel and film are similar in style. The novel is written in a naturalist genre, and the film presents the story in a realistic vein, except for the surreal opening sequence preceding the credits. Working with amateurs, Sembène had not much choice in the matter.13 In any case, the naturalist novel and the realistic film are quite appropriate to Sembène's didactic intentions, and they are the styles he invariably chooses.

Sembène demonstrates his expertise in both media by playing to their distinct opportunities and limitations. The film offers telling images.14 The businessmen wear Western suits without regard to the tropical heat—except in their public display of the ousting of the French from the Chamber of Commerce. Awa, Oumi, and Rama dress in strikingly different ways. The top of the wedding cake features a European couple. A bottle of Evian serves to wash El Hadji's Mercedes-Benz, another to fill its radiator. Many of the beggars are severely crippled. The freeze frame that concludes the film is not easily forgotten.

The film reduces the number of marginal characters, for example, the number of El Hadji's children and of members of the Chamber of Commerce, making it easier for the viewer to distinguish them. And it moves away from the nuanced characterizations of the novel to contrast the principal figures more sharply. In the novel Awa's son asks his father for money, in the film both her children are above such entreaty. The changes in the characterization of Rama are most significant. She has a Fiat automobile in the novel, but rides a moped more in line with the image of her austerity in the film. The novel has Rama take the part of her father in the final confrontation with the beggars, telling them to leave, but the film has Awa take on that role, thus emphasizing her loyalty. Rama is playful with her fiancé, opportunistic in the encounter with the police officer, in the novel; in the film she invariably presents an image of principled determination. Most strikingly, while the novel has Rama's fiancé, Pathé, and Awa's father, Papa Jean, the film has no major male character with positive attributes to match Awa and Rama.

The novel offers a good deal of explanation for the foreign reader. Some explanations are provided in the text, for example, that "El Hadji" and "Adja" are the honorific titles that came to them because they made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In addition, there are a dozen footnotes that translate, explain, and even comment. The novel thus explicitly addresses a foreign public. The film, in distinct contrast, makes little effort to avoid some aspects of the story being lost on foreign viewers. Thus the badiène's references to Ngoné as her daughter suggests to the foreigner that she is Ngoné's mother—in fact she is the sister of her father and in accord with local custom plays the principal role in her niece's marriage. The transvestite serving at the wedding party is well known to Dakarites, but his character escapes most foreigners—and they miss the irony of his subsequent comment on El Hadji's impotence: "There are no real men today." Most importantly, the Wolof songs, which constitute a major co-text, are not subtitled, as is the Wolof dialogue.15

The film omits major strands of the story while adding several new developments. Thus the viewer misses the story of the relationship between the badiène and Ngoné's parents and the badiène's machinations that ensnare El Hadji into marrying Ngoné. Missing from the film also is the drama of Awa's relationship with her parents after her conversion from Catholicism to Islam to become Abdou Kader Bèye's first wife. Finally, the relationship between Rama and her fiancé, Pathé, is omitted from the film.

New in the film is the reappearance of the three Frenchmen of the old Chamber of Commerce: two bringing attaché cases full of cash for the members of the new all-African Chamber of Commerce, and one of them becoming advisor to the Chamber's president; the third commanding the police detachments. An entirely new story is introduced with the peasant who has come to the city with the savings of his village to buy supplies and with the transformation of Thieli (i.e., the vulture) from thief to successor of El Hadji at the Chamber of Commerce. New is the arrest and deportation of the beggars and their long walk back to Dakar. The last two stories are linked by the introduction of the seller of Kaddu (i.e., The Voice), the Wolof newspaper Ousmane Sembène edited with Pathé Diagne.16

There is thus a definite contrast between the kinds of elements Sembène has omitted and added. In the move from the novel to the film he has dropped major strands from the story that focus on family relationships. And he has added new elements that develop an explicitly political dimension. The reappearance of the three Frenchmen makes palpable the neocolonialism El Hadji comes eventually to denounce.17 The police are shown as the ready tool of the bourgeoisie: to keep the masses away from the fruits of independence, to keep the beggars out of the affluent neighborhood, to deport them from the city, to arrest the relative El Hadji dispossessed.

If a police force at the beck and call of the bourgeoisie demonstrates state support for their interests, the connection between the Chamber of Commerce and the political establishment is made explicit by the government minister and the two "deputies." The representative's 15% cut on a government contract demonstrates the corruption of that establishment.

Subtly, the film takes the viewer a couple of steps further into a critique of the political regime. Repeated references to the President become ambiguous. We are left to wonder whether they are aimed at the President of Senegal rather than the President of the Chamber of Commerce. The Frenchman advising the Chamber's President reminds the informed viewer of Jean Collin, a naturalized Frenchman who played an eminent role in Senegalese government from the time of independence until 1990.18 The empty slogans mouthed by the members of the Chamber of Commerce caricature the discourse of Léopold Senghor, the President of Senegal until 1981. Indeed, Françoise Pfaff suggests that the voice of the Chamber's president has the same intonation as that of Senghor (Cinema of Ousmane Sembene 74). The Chamber of Commerce and its members thus become emblematic of the state and its leaders. El Hadji's accusations expose not just the impotence of Senegalese businessmen but the political impotence of the newly independent nation.

The images of the abrupt take-over of the Chamber of Commerce by Africans can be seen to stand for the political take-over by Africans that came with independence in 1960. The surrealism of this sequence, not repeated anywhere else in the film, signals an underlying message. The ejection of the political symbols of the colonial order from the Chamber of Commerce suggests the political nature of that message, the surrealism of the sequence that the ejection of those symbols, and indeed of the colonial masters, is not for real.

Once the film is seen as a denunciation of not just the economic but the political regime, the peasant and his pronouncements, introduced into the film, take on their full significance. It is not just that the latest recruit to the Chamber of Commerce robbed a peasant, the entire political economy is geared toward the neglect and even outright exploitation of the peasantry, the large majority of Senegalese citizens, and the most severely deprived.

As Sembène exposes the political system, he also takes aim at its ideology. He ridicules the ideas of négritude so closely linked to Senghor, one of the principal founders of the négritude movement. The members of the Chamber of Commerce boast about their "africanité" as they congratulate El Hadji on his third marriage. And one of the guests at the wedding party tells of his last trip to Europe: he had gone to Switzerland rather than to Spain where there all too many Africans: "la négritude, hé! ça voyage" ‘negritude, hey, it gets around’ is the ironic comment. Masks from distant cultures are used, or rather abused: a Mossi mask from Burkina Faso serves as an object of decoration in the President's office, a Yoruba mask from Nigeria is employed to collect the ballots at the Chamber of Commerce.

Instead of the undifferentiated slogans of négritude, Sembène posits a selective approach to both the African and the Western heritage. Rama brings the ideals of such a synthesis alive. She makes do (in the film) with a moped, shakes hands with Modu, El Hadji's driver, refuses to drink Evian water with her father, wears African-style dress, works on the orthography of Wolof, insists on speaking Wolof, and denounces polygamy. The posters in her room claim the heritage of the anti-colonial struggles of Samory Touré and Amilcar Cabral.19 When she confronts her father in his office, the camera focuses on her dress: it reproduces the national colors, and they match those of a map behind her, a map of an undivided Africa—in contrast to maps of Africa with its borders inherited from colonialism next to her father and at the Chamber of Commerce. The concern she expresses about her mother may also be heard as her concern about mother Africa.

The film ends on a freeze frame, and the viewer is left to imagine what might ensue. If the cleansing ritual rids El Hadji of his xala, will his regained potency translate beyond the family in a new role in business? Or in the political arena? If the wretched of the earth, to use the phrase coined by Fanon, can curse and cleanse, are they a political force to be reckoned with? The novel seems to preclude such a revolutionary prospect as the police outside the house raise their weapons into firing position at the end.

How to explain the shift in emphasis from the denunciation of the Senegalese bourgeoisie in the novel to an attack on the political regime and a suggestion of revolt? The threat of persecution or censorship does not provide a ready explanation. In the first decade after independence, and indeed subsequently, the Senegalese authorities tolerated a level of dissent unheard of in most African countries. Whatever Sembène might write, he was unlikely to be subjected to persecution. As for censorship, it was less of a threat to a novel published in France than to a film produced and to be shown in Senegal—as events were to show.

There was, however, another problem: Sembène needed to secure funding to produce the film. He had started out writing a film script. While waiting to find funding for his film, he transformed his script into the novel. Subsequently, from the novel, he developed a new script for the film.20 Conceivably, a novel that attacked the political regime explicitly would have jeopardized the financial support Sembène was seeking for the film.21 The Société Nationale de Cinéma had been established in 1972. Two years later four films were released that had been produced with its support, Xala among them. Sembène had begun shooting without outside support. In view of Sembène's reputation, the National Film Institute offered a 50% participation without a review of the script. Eventually the Institute financed 60% of the film (Vieyra 87).22

A second interpretation for the shift between the novel and the film—and the two explanations are not mutually exclusive—focuses on the different audiences Sembène was seeking to reach. In the early 1960s, Sembène had turned to the film medium so as to reach a wider African audience. In 1968, he had produced Mandabi in Wolof, the language widely used throughout most of Senegal. In Xala, he introduces some Wolof dialogue and advertises Kaddu, omits the translations, explanations, and comment the novel provides for the foreign reader, and makes subtle references to the political context in Senegal that are lost on the foreign viewer. That the film seeks first and foremost to reach a large Senegalese public becomes all the more evident when we take into account the songs which accompany key scenes.

The songs intertwine proverbs, popular sayings, and metaphors. They are sung by the griot who accompanies Gorgui, the blind beggar. While the novel and most of the dialogue in the film are in French, the griot sings in Wolof. He repeats his songs so that they stay with the audience, or rather, with those audiences that understand them: the songs, unlike the Wolof dialogue, are not subtitled.

The songs constitute a major co-text for Senegalese viewers. Their lyrics, written by Sembène (Ghali 90), sharpen the political message of the film. Outside El Hadji's office, just after Thiely has robbed the peasant, the griot's song chastises the new rulers whose autocratic conception of government is reminiscent of the lizard who brooks nobody else around him:

A ruler should not be like a lizard. The lizard's character is no good. If you follow him, he complains that you are stepping on his tail. If you walk side by side with him, he questions your pretense to be his equal. And if you walk ahead of him, you hear him say, you are scaring away my insects.23

He sings of the necessity and the inevitability of change, equates inaction with worthlessness, and extols the courage of the lion:

Instead of crying, you have to find a solution for your
The cursed ones are those whose offspring are worth-
For everything there is a season. Everybody will have
  their turn.
The lion cannot be deprived of the object of his desire
  for lack of

As the beggars march to El Hadji's villa to take revenge, the griot's song reenforces the metaphor of the lion whose determination and courage will triumph over the lizard:

The lion is courageous. The lion is honest. The lion cannot be deprived of the object of his desire for lack of courage.

The songs move from the denunciation of the lizard, the epitome of autocratic rule, to praise for the lion, the symbol of selflessness and courage, and a revolutionary call for the Senegalese viewers to oppose their ruler.

The authorities let the film be shown in Senegal but imposed ten cuts. Senegalese audiences were not to see the unceremonious removal of the bust of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, from the Chamber of Commerce; the Frenchman ordering police to push back the crowd in front of the Chamber; the members of the Chamber opening their attaché cases to find them stuffed with cash; the Frenchman conducting the police raid on the beggars; El Hadji's statement to the members of the Chambers that they had the police and the army in their pockets; Gorgui lecturing Awa that prisoners are happier than peasants, fishermen, or workers; and the call to revolt that closes the film (see Hennebelle). With their censorship the authorities proved false the member of parliament's sarcastic claim, after El Hadji had denounced his fellow members at the Chamber of Commerce, that here they had democracy. Sembène responded by distributing flyers which detailed the scenes that had been cut.24

In his novel Xala, Sembène introduces the foreign reader to family relations among the Dakar upper-middle class even as he ridicules and denounces these arrivistes of early postcolonial days. In his film, Sembène departs from the novel to create powerful images and introduce song. And he recasts his story to reach first and foremost a Senegalese audience. He denounces not only the pseudo-bourgeoisie but also the political leaders in the neocolonial order a decade after independence and calls for revolutionary change. Sembène has continued to expose and denounce, to present less than flattering mirrors to his two audiences: the Senegalese—and their former colonial masters.


1. Sembène Ousmane is the name his novels and films usually indicate. We follow here more recent convention in putting his family name last.

2. For a summary of critical comment on the film, see Pfaff (Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers 212-13).

3. In his critical discussion of francophone African films, Michel Serceau mentions Xala as one of three films distinguished by greater complexity of characters and plot.

4. The reader/viewer skeptical of the power of the xala may detect that Sembène offers an alternative psychological interpretation as well. That El Hadji should be impotent on his wedding night is not all that surprising considering how Rama had denounced his polygamy, how he had been put down by Oumi, how the badiène and two of his fellow businessmen had questioned his virility. And El Hadji subconsciously senses the responsibility of the beggars for his affliction—he explodes in anger at the beggars at the very moment he tries to answer the question: who inflicted the xala on him?

5. For a study of the Senegalese business world in the late 1960s, see Samir Amin, who emphasizes the neocolonial context. Catherine Boone provides a detailed account of the relationship between business interests and the state up to the 1980s. Of particular interest to the reader/viewer of Xala is her account of the political crisis of 1968-70 (165-72) and of the regime's response, which included the promotion of a rentier class rooted in ad hoc, speculative, and state-mediated business opportunities (182-97).

One specific response was the transformation of the European-dominated Chambre de Commerce, d'Agriculture et d'Industrie de Dakar into an African-dominated Chambre de Commerce d'Industrie et d'Artisanat de la Région du CapVert, i.e. of the wider Dakar region, in 1969. As in Xala, the transition was abrupt, even if it proceeded in a more decorous fashion. At the formal inauguration Léopold Senghor spoke of "our socialism, national and democratic, realistic and humanistic at the same time." There was remarkable continuity between the two bodies in one respect: out of seven, then eight commissions, only one met regularly: it was concerned with imports, i.e., with gaining access to government-controlled opportunities for large legitimate and illegitimate gains (Anon., Diagne and Decupper, and various Bulletins of the two Chambers of Commerce).

Film and novel omit altogether the Lebanese community, the third major player in the Senegalese economy to this day.

6. Lucy Fischer and Marcia Landy suggest parallels with films by Luis Buñuel such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Viridiana.

7. Apart from the dependency on overseas interests, the film introduces another limitation on Senegalese businessmen. Ahmed Fall is a Mauritanian, a representative of the immigrant group that dominated the retail grocery trade until the riots against Mauritanians in 1989. El Hadji's proposal to establish retail outlets, while a blatant attempt to get his bank to provide him with liquid funds, constitutes also a nationalist project.

8. Sembène here closely echoes a statement made by the Union des Groupements Economiques Sénégalais (UNIGES) in the report of its first congress in 1968: "[Commerce, industry and banking in Senegal] are the chasses gardées of foreigners [resting upon] their colonial privileges while Senegalese vegetate in marginal sectors of the economy" (Boone 168). UNIGES had 2,600 members, mainly small-scale traders, transporters, and artisans, and played a major role in the 1968-70 crisis.

9. For detailed discussions of the female characters in the film, see Pfaff, Cinema of Ousmane Sembene 150-62 and Petty.

10. Aminata Sow Fall has focused afresh on the condition of beggars in Dakar. The title of her novel La grève des bàttu ou les déchets humains uses the very expression, "human rubbish," employed by the President in the film. Fall posits that a beggars' strike is effective, in an Islamic society that prescribes the giving of alms, in countering attempts to evict the beggars from the city's central administrative and business district. Peter Hawkins suggests that Sow Fall took up the topics of poverty and power addressed by Sembène in Xala and in Le dernier de l'empire not for lack of imagination but to present them from a non-Marxist perspective.

11. The contrast between the political potential of the beggars and the impotence of the bourgeoisie may be related to the contrast between images of life and creativity and images of the lifeless Other in Sembène's novels established by Christiane Ndiay.

12. Sembène's affirmation of the political potential of the lumpenproletariat in Xala contrasts with the celebration of the force of the proletariat in his chef-d-æuvre, God's Bits of Wood. The problems entailed in the latter's classic Marxist analysis (Gugler, "African Literature and the Uses of Theory") may well have induced Sembène to shift to a Fanonesque stance. Or perhaps he would argue the complementary political role of the workers and the lumpen.

13. Only one professional actor participated in the film, Douta Seck in the role of Gorgui, the blind beggar (Pfaff, Cinema of Ousmane Sembene 53). Samba Diabaré Samb, a griot highly respected in Senegal, took on the role of the griot accompanying Gorgui.

14. For a discussion of Sembène's technique, which includes swift cutting unusual in African films, and indeed in his earlier films, see Ukadike 180-81. Mowitt draws attention to Sembène's use of false match on action cuts in order to invert and (con)fuse narrative space. He suggests that the director uses two different syntaxes that correspond to the syntaxes of French and Wolof and that "the specific texture of Xala derives from the dense bilingual interplay among French and Wolof ‘shots’" (81).

15. The English version of Xala further limits the viewer because its subtitles fail to convey whether the characters use Wolof or French and thus withhold information on language use that is central to the story.

16. A total of 23 issues of Kaddu were published between 1971 and 1978. They varied in size from 10 to 20 pages. The last issues, in 1976-78, included some material in languages other than Wolof: Pulaar, Seereer, Madinka, and Arabic. Today, major national newspapers carry sections in Wolof and other Senegalese languages every other week.

17. We might expect the novel to confront its foreign readers with a denunciation of their complicity in neocolonialism, and the film to direct popular opposition against the bourgeoisie and the political regime rather than a distant power well beyond its reach. There is a striking parallel here to the later work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Petals of Blood, published in 1977, describes the emergence of the Kenyan bourgeoisie. Only three years later, Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ, expressly written, in language and in style, to be accessible to a broader, local public, embraces the neocolonialism thesis (see Gugler, "How Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o Shifted"). Perhaps both authors felt that popular wrath is more easily raised against a regime controlled by foreigners, that nationalism is a more potent force than class consciousness.

18. Jesus Christ, as Senegalese referred to Jean Collin, drawing on his initials, was extremely powerful, by all accounts. In Senegal, he elicited strong emotions, for and against. An outside observer, Jeune Afrique, offered a quite positive assessment, concluding "But if Jean Collin does not deny his [French] origins, he decided a long time ago to be Senegalese and to work for Senegal, to the extent that the French no longer consider him one of their own" (Andriamirado 13).

19. With a third poster in Rama's room Sembène pays homage to Charlie Chaplin—and, we may surmise, claims his heritage as film director and as the advocate of the little man. Elsewhere in the house, a poster advertises Sembène's first full-length feature film, La Noire de…. And in the hallway, a poster of Jimi Hendrix reminds us of the African diaspora's impact on Western music.

20. Vieyra describes the new script as "enriched" (87). Presumably the delay contributed to the complexity of the plot, the diversity in characterizations, and the riches in satirically observed detail. The novel might have benefitted from more of a delay. It appears to have been written in a hurry and to have gone into print without proper editing: the text is marred by non sequiturs and by less than felicitous turns of phrase.

21. The threat that financial support would be withheld and/or the film would be censored appears to have weighed on Sembène when the film was shot. According to Samba Diane, the resemblance between the actor playing the European commanding a police detachment and Collin, who was Minister of the Interior for more than ten years, was too close for comfort: his appearance was changed and the two scenes shot again.

22. If the cuts imposed on Xala indicate that the authorities were less than pleased with the product they had cosponsored, they nevertheless provided finance for Ceddo, Sembène's next production (Vieyra 95).

23. The text of our translation differs from the summary given by Sembène in an interview (Ghali 90) in phrasing but not in message.

24. According to Sembène, the film was very successful in Senegal, despite the cuts (see Ghali), so successful that nobody drove a Mercedes in Dakar for three months after its release (see Welsh).

Works Cited

Andriamirado, Sennen. "L'homme fort du Sénégal." Jeune Afrique 1374 (1987): 4-13.

Amin, Samir. Le monde des affaires Sénégalaises. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969.

Anon. "Le mystère de la Chambre de Commerce, d'Agriculture et d'Industrie de Dakar." Africa 43 (1968): 15-19, 69.

Boone, Catherine. Merchant Capital and the Roots of State Power in Senegal 1930-1985. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Cruise O'Brien, Rita. "Foreign Ascendance in the Economy and State." The Political Economy of Under-development: Dependence in Senegal. Ed. Rita Cruise O'Brien. Sage Series on African Modernization and Development 3. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979. 100-25.

Diagne, Issa, and Joel Decupper. "La Chambre de Commerce de Dakar va-t-elle continuer à jouer les inutilités?" Africa 68 (1974): 29, 31, 35.

Diane, Samba. Personal communication. March 1994.

Fall, Aminata Sow. La grève des bàttu ou les déchets humains. Dakar: Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1979.

Fanon, Frantz. Les damnés de la terre. Cahiers libres 27-28. Paris: François Maspero, 1961. English trans. by Constance Farrington, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1963.

Fischer, Lucy. "Xala: A Study in Black Humor." Millenium Film Journal 7-9 (1980): 165-72.

Ghali, Noureddine. "Ousmane Sembène, entretien." Cinéma 208 (1976): 83-95. English trans. by John D. H. Downing "An Interview with Sembene Ousmane." Film and Politics in the Third World. Ed. John D. H. Downing. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1987. 41-54.

Gugler, Josef. "African Literature and the Uses of Theory." Literary Theory and African Literature. Théorie littéraire et littérature africaine. Ed. Josef Gugler, Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, and Jürgen Martini. Beiträge zur Afrikaforschung 3. Münster: LIT Verlag, 1994. 1-15.

———. "How Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o Shifted from Class Analysis to a Neo-Colonialist Perspective." Journal of Modern African Studies 32 (1994): 329-39.

Hawkins, Peter. "Marxist Intertext, Islamic Reinscription? Some Common Themes in the Novels of Sembène Ousmane and Aminata Sow Fall." African Francophone Writing: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Laïla Ibnlfassi and Nicki Hitchcott. Oxford: Berg, 1996. 163-69.

Hennebelle, Guy. "Le cinéma de Sembène Ousmane." Ecran 43 (1976): 41-50.

Landy, Marcia. "Political Allegory and ‘Engaged Cinema’: Sembène's Xala." Cinema Journal 23.3 (1984): 31-46.

Mowitt, John. "Sembene Ousmane's Xala: Postcoloniality and Foreign Film Languages." camera obscura 31 (1993): 73-94.

Ndiaye, Christiane. "Termites et Bouts-de-bois: métaphores de l'Identité et de l'Altérité chez Ousmane Sembène." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the African Literature Association, Pointe-à-Pître. 1993. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Petals of Blood. London: Heinemann, 1977; New York: Dutton, 1978.

———. Caitaani Mũtharaba-inĩ. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1980. English trans. by the author, Devil on the Cross. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Petty, Sheila. "Towards a Changing Africa: Women's Roles in the Films of Ousmane Sembène." A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembène. Ed. Sheila Petty. Westport: Praeger, 1996. 67-86.

Pfaff, Françoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene, A Pioneer of African Film. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies 79. Westport: Greenwood, 1984.

———. Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers: A Critical Study, with Filmography and Bio-Bibligraphy. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Sembène, Ousmane. Les bouts de bois de Dieu: Banty mam yall. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960. English trans. by Francis Price, God's Bits of Wood. Garden City: Doubleday, 1962.

———. Xala. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1973. English trans. by Clive Wake, Xala. London: Heinemann, 1976; Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1976.

———. "Filmmakers and African Culture." Africa 71 (1977): 80.

———. Le dernier de l'empire: roman sénégalais. 2 vols. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1981. English trans. by Adrian Adams, The Last of the Empire: A Senegalese Novel. London: Heinemann, 1983.

———. La noire de … (Black Girl). Film written and directed by Ousmane Sembène. Paris: Les Actualités Françaises; Dakar: Films Domirev, 1966. Distributed in the US by New Yorker Films.

———. Mandabi (The Money Order). Film written and directed by Ousmane Sembène. Paris: Comptoir Francçais du Film, and Dakar: Films Domirev, 1968. Distributed in the U.S. by New Yorker Films.

———. Xala. Film written and directed by Ousmane Sembène. Dakar: Société Nationale de Cinématographie and Films Domirev, 1974. Distributed in the U.S. by New Yorker Films.

Serceau, Michel. "Le cinéma d'Afrique noire francophone face au modèle occidental: la rançon du refus." iris 18 (1995): 39-46.

Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. Black African Cinema. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou. Le cinéma au Sénégal. Brussels: OCIC/L'Harmattan, 1983.

Welsh, Henry. "Ousmane Sembène: ‘Un film est un débat.’" Jeune Cinéma 99 (1976): 13-17.

David Murphy (essay date 2007)

SOURCE: Murphy, David. "Fighting for the Homeland? The Second World War in the Films of Ousmane Sembène." L'Esprit Créateur 47, no. 1 (2007): 56-67.

[In the following essay, Murphy examines Sembène's treatment of the period of Vichy French occupation of Senegal during World War II in his films Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye.]

Towards the end of Ousmane Sembene's film Emitaï (1971), set in the Casamance region of southern Senegal during the Second World War, a messenger arrives in a village occupied by the French colonial army, which is there to requisition rice for its men. The messenger brings news of a change in regime in the metropolitan ‘center’ of the French Empire, resulting in the hasty removal of posters of Marshall Pétain, one of which had stood framed behind the French commander when he had earlier sent the young African conscripts off to war, and their replacement by posters of General Charles de Gaulle. The colonial troops, the tirailleurs sénégalais, who had led the conscripts away to the strains of Maréchal, nous voilà, are extremely confused at this sudden change of authority, and an indignant, disbelieving tirailleur (played by none other than Sembene himself) asks his African NCO to explain how a mere "Général de brigade" could possibly replace a "Maréchal": "Où tu as vu deux étoiles commander sept étoiles?" Sembene thus presents the change in regime from Vichy to Free France as entirely cosmetic, the replacement of one remote image or figurehead by another. It is no coincide that this change in regime occurs just minutes before the film's final sequence, in which the men of the village are gunned down by the colonial troops for refusing to hand over the rice. In essence, the spectator is invited to perceive a fundamental continuity between the colonial policies of Vichy and Free France.

Recent historical analysis by Eric Jennings and Ruth Ginio, amongst others, has produced a rather different picture of Vichy rule in the colonies, and has emphasised the particularly repressive form of colonialism practised by Pétain's government.1 Historians have long commented on the pivotal role played by the Second World War as a catalyst for decolonization. However, both Jennings and Ginio move beyond the general arguments that the fall of France in 1940, and the subsequent reliance on colonial troops to liberate the ‘homeland’, simply led to a decline in France's prestige in the eyes of its colonized subjects. In particular, Jennings argues that "the years 1940 to 1944 contributed to decolonization in a much more tangible way, by ushering in a reductionist ideology and a new, harsher brand of colonialism, which both directly and indirectly fuelled indigenous nationalism" (Jennings 2). This article will analyse two films by Sembene that are set during the Second World War, Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye (1988),2 films which, by turns, both contradict and confirm the historical interpretation proposed by Jennings and Ginio. Although Sembene underlines the continuity between colonial rule under Vichy and the Free French, he is nonetheless aware that Vichy permitted the development of a more nakedly racist system, as is illustrated by the opposition between the progressive Captain Raymond and the intransigent local commanders in Camp de Thiaroye. However, Sembene's fundamental argument is that France's behaviour in its colonies was a profound betrayal of the allegedly ‘universal’ prin- ciples of the French Republic: the excesses and ambiguities of the Vichy period merely served to reinforce this fact.

Both films focus on the role of the tirailleurs sénégalais, who, despite their name, were in fact drawn from France's colonial territories right across the continent.3 The tirailleurs sénégalais are inherently ambiguous figures, for they can be viewed both as the agents of French colonialism—France's African Empire was largely built by French officers leading local recruits—and also as its victims, especially in relation to the First and Second World Wars, in which the tirailleurs gave their lives for the metropolitan ‘homeland’, only to rediscover their status as mere colonial subjects once the war was over. The figure of the ancien tirailleur has long occupied an important place in both African literature and cinema.4 One of the earliest works in French by an African author is Bakary Diallo's Force-Bonté (1926), the autobiography of an uneducated Fulani shepherd who joins the tirailleurs and becomes a fervent supporter of France's civilizing mission in Africa.5 However, Diallo's text becomes an unconsciously ironic commentary on French colonial hypocrisy, as he suffers horrific injuries in the First World War but is refused citizenship by the country that he had helped to defend. Undoubtedly, the best-known example of the tragic tirailleur is the character of le fou in Cheikh Hamidou Kane's masterpiece, L'Aventure ambiguë (1961): a man traumatized by his experience of war in Europe, le fou rejects Western civilization as fundamentally dehumanizing. 6 Prior to Emitaï, Sembene had provided two cinematic representations of the tirailleurs, which fit this model of mental trauma and victimhood. In his short film Niaye (1964), Tanor has lost his mind due to the trauma of his experiences during France's colonial wars of the 1950s in Vietnam and Algeria; this trauma leads Tanor, like Kane's character le fou, to violence, as he murders his father, stabbing him to death with the same efficiency with which he had no doubt killed so many other ‘natives’ in Vietnam and Algeria. After the murder, there follows a dream sequence in which he imagines the village overrun by armoured cars, infantrymen, and even parachutists. A more benign but equally tragic image of the tirailleur is to be found in Sembene's first short film, Borom Sarret (1962). In the film's tense climax, the cart driver is stopped by a policeman and asked for his papers. As he takes the papers from his pocket, a military medal falls to the ground. As the cart driver reaches for the medal, we see in close-up the policeman's boot stamp down upon it, followed by a cut to a low-angle shot of the cart driver looking up at his tormentor standing over him with the high-rise homes of the bourgeoisie in the background. His earlier sacrifices for the ‘homeland’ mean nothing to the new elites of the post-independence regime. From these brief examples, it thus becomes clear that the tirailleurs sénégalais have often been deployed as a conduit through which to explore the nature and legacy of French colonialism in Africa, and their role in both world wars has been central to this process.

Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye are the two films in which Sembene makes the most sustained attempt to examine the significance of the Second World War in the decolonization of French West Africa. Both films are centred on so-called bavures committed by the colonial army in Senegal: the colonizer attempts to present such violence as an aberration, whereas, for Sembene, it is symptomatic of colonial rule as a whole.7Emitaï is based on a number of incidents that took place in Casamance in 1942, in which troops murdered peasants who refused to allow their rice harvest to be requisitioned. Camp de Thiaroye focuses on a specific incident that took place on 1 December 1944 at the Thiaroye demobilization camp just outside Dakar: a dispute arose with the military authorities over their refusal to pay the African troops the same level of demobilisation pay as their white, French counterparts, leading the tirailleurs briefly to take a hostage in the form of the head of the French West African army; thirty-five tirailleurs were massacred and hundreds of others wounded in a brutal reprisal by the army.8 Depicting massacres that took place under both Vichy and Free French rule, Sembene seeks explicitly to represent what he views as the fundamental continuity in colonial practice. This blurring of the boundaries between Vichy and Free France is particularly evident in Emitaï, as Sembene himself acknowledges:

Je n'ai pas voulu indiquer la date exacte à laquelle les événements se déroulent. C'est aux alentours de 1942-43-44. On ne sait si c'est au moment de la prise de pouvoir par de Gaulle au Sénégal ou en France. Ce que j'ai voulu suggérer c'est que pour nous Africains il n'y a pas de différence entre les deux régimes. Nous étions toujours des colonisés. Les méthodes, certes, ont quelque peu changé mais l'objectif était toujours de maintenir l'Empire Français. On l'a bien vu après la libération de la France: c'est dans le sang qu'ont été étouffées les revendications africaines à Thiaroye au Sénégal, à Grand-Bassam en Côte d'Ivoire, à Sétif et Guelma en Algérie, à Madagascar, pour ne rien dire d'Indochine.9

This desire to blur events leads to a certain number of historical inaccuracies. For example, at the beginning of the film, the conscripted African troops are sent off to war in Europe, whereas, in fact, the many troops conscripted under Vichy saw service in Africa itself. More worryingly, Sembene has the French commander declare, standing before a poster of Pétain, that "La France est en guerre contre l'Allemagne," which, of course, makes no sense in historical terms, since Pétain's regime began with France's surrender and its acceptance of a German victory. However, the lack of historical accuracy in Sembene's film should not be taken as proof of a cavalier attitude towards history; on the contrary, Sembene would argue that his films represent the fundamental historical ‘reality’, which cannot be gleaned through a naturalistic representation of the ‘facts’ (an argument to which I will return in the conclusion to this article).

The thematic connections between the two films are reinforced by a specific intertextual reference in Camp de Thiaroye to the events depicted in Emitaï. The Western-educated, civilized, and urbane Senegalese NCO, Sergeant-Major Diatta, who is originally from Casamance, is shocked to discover from his uncle that his parents have been killed by French troops in a massacre at Effok (one of the historical incidents upon which Sembene based Emitaï ). The liberal French commander, Captain Raymond, attempts to explain the incident as a bavure resulting from the excesses of Vichy, but a newly radicalized Diatta equates the massacre at Effok with the Nazi atrocities at Oradour-sur-Glane (where the Nazis wiped out an entire village in retribution for an attack by the Resistance), an assertion that Raymond simply cannot accept. However, the films present quite different versions of the tirailleurs: the loyal servants of Empire that we see in Emitaï become its tragic victims (and the agents of an incipient anticolonialism) in Camp de Thiaroye. I will examine the significance of this shift in Sembene's representation of the tirailleurs in greater detail below.

Emitaï is a slow, almost meditative film, which examines the difficulties faced by the Diola people of Casamance in coming to terms with what they perceive as their abandonment by their gods who have allowed the French to steal their food and take their sons away to fight in foreign wars. It opens with scenes of young Diola men on a lonely dirt road being captured by tirailleurs and, subsequently, conscripted into the colonial army bound for Europe. From the start, Sembene thus depicts the army as a repressive presence, which forces allegiance through violence. However, it is significant that there is a also a (tragi-)comic element to this sequence: the tirailleurs pounce from the long grass on a series of unsuspecting victims in almost slapstick fashion. Rather than the imperial rhetoric of France's Empire uniting as one against the enemies of the ‘homeland’, we are presented with makeshift attempts to coerce a hostile local population into supporting France's war effort. Sembene deliberately chooses to ignore those (such as himself) who volunteered to fight for France, for his aim is to make his audience reflect upon the ambiguity of French colonial practices. The white commander sends the troops off to war with the grimly ironic words "vous êtes des engagés volontaires"; the scene later jumps forward to the present as the camera pans over the war memorial in central Dakar, which features a tirailleur standing alongside a white, French soldier. Sembene casts his film as an invitation to the audience to go beyond such simplistic memorializing of the colonial regime in order to search for the repressed history of Empire.10

The film is primarily concerned with the political radicalization of women; it is they who constitute the main opposition to the colonial army, a fact comically underlined when a young girl forces a tirailleur to retreat, as she playfully grabs hold of his rifle. The conscription of the young men of the village leads the chief Djiméko to conclude that they must abandon their fatalistic belief in the will of the gods who, he claims, have abandoned them. He leads his men into battle against the French, only to be quickly defeated with Djiméko himself mortally wounded. After his demise, the men return to their former passivity, thus causing the women of the village to take up the mantle of resistance when the French return a year later to requisition their rice. The women hide the rice and the army punishes them by obliging all women and children in the village to sit exposed in the burning heat of the midday sun. Both the tirailleurs and the men of the village are presented as upholders of the colonial status quo: they accept the fact of French domination and, in their very different ways, collaborate in the exercise of colonial oppression.

The tirailleurs are unambiguously cast as the willing agents of colonialism. Although the troops are led by two white, French commanders, it is significant that all of the troops are Africans, and Sembene does not flinch from illustrating the soldiers' role in upholding colonial authority. The film concludes with an act of colonial violence in which the tirailleurs gun down the men of the village who refuse to carry the rice for them. The camera shows the tirailleurs in profile with guns pointing at the villagers off-screen; as the screen fades to black, we hear the sound of gunfire. Emitaï was made in the context of ongoing anti-colonial struggles, particularly in Lusophone Africa—in 1971, neighbouring Guinea-Bissau was still engaged in a bitter war of independence with the Portuguese. Any form of ‘collaboration’ with the colonial powers is unequivocally viewed as a betrayal of African independence.

However, by the late 1980s the situation had changed radically: the continent had been freed from direct colonial rule, and there was a growing willingness to explore more of the ambiguities of colonialism. Consequently, in Camp de Thiaroye Sembene presents the tirailleurs as not only victims of colonialism but also active agents of anti-colonial resistance. The film is set in an army camp established for African troops returning from the war in Europe. Sembene makes an explicit visual link between the demobilization camp and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany through the character of Pays, a man who has suffered deep psychological scars and been rendered mute by his time in Buchenwald.11 Significantly, it is Pays who first discovers the barbed-wire fence enclosing the camp, which had previously been invisible due to the blinding white light created by the sun on the sandy landscape. While the other men settle into their quarters, Pays approaches the camp boundary. He is filmed from behind in a medium-distance shot, and is thus framed against the barbed-wire fence, which gradually becomes visible. Subsequently, there is a cut to a low-angle shot in medium close-up with the camera outside the fence looking up at Pays framed more clearly against the barbed-wire. The camera zooms in towards Pays' face and then follows his gaze, as he turns to look at four watchtowers at each corner of the camp. These subjective shots convey the sense of unease felt by Pays, which is heightened by the extra-diegetic sound of a haunting blues played on the harmonica. As the scene progresses, there is a medium shot of Pays running his hand along the barbed-wire, which then cuts to a close-up of the hand itself as it gently touches the barbs (see opposite). The sense of menace has increased, with the spectator expecting Pays to cut his fingers as he tenses his hand open and closed on the fence. The tension is broken by the arrival of the Corporal, Pays' closest friend, who picks up a handful of soil, which he then pours over Pays' hand. Taking the troubled soldier's hand in his own, the Corporal comforts him like a child, reassuring him that he has now returned to African soil and that the horrors of Buchenwald are behind him. His words succeed in calming Pays but the camera tells another story: as they walk back towards the barracks, the camera frames them both against the barbed-wire and the viewer is presented with a premonitory glimpse of the tirailleurs as prisoners rather than soldiers.

Unlike in Emitaï there is absolutely no indication that these tirailleurs have been conscripted into the army; on the contrary, the film is at pains to stress their allegiance to France and the sacrifices that they have made on behalf of la patrie. However, their experiences upon returning to Africa after their contribution to the liberation of the French ‘homeland’ disabuse them of their illusions about the Empire. The most remarkable (and complex) way in which Sembene presents the tirailleurs' resistance to colonial domination is by creating visual and narrative links between these African soldiers and the German army. These links underline the neglected fact of African suffering at the hands of the Nazis, but they also illustrate the keen awareness amongst the tirailleurs that their imperial masters had been subjugated by a more dominant power, which had led to France itself becoming a ‘colonized’ nation, subject to the indignities routinely meted out to Africans. For example, the Corporal often lapses into German when he is angry; he upbraids the chef over the poor quality of the food served to the tirailleurs, and he insults a driver who almost runs over two of his men. However, the most powerful link to the German army is created through the visual motif of Pays' SS helmet. The ambiguous symbolism of the helmet is demonstrated in the scene that immediately follows Pays' discovery of the barbed-wire fence. Two tirailleurs walk towards the fence in order to hang out their wet clothes to dry (an act that would render innocent that which, moments earlier, had appeared menacing), but their path is blocked by Pays (in the foreground of the shot), who is now wearing an SS helmet and a great-coat. This sequence is followed by a cut to a profile shot of Pays with the imposing watchtower in the background. Day turns to night as he turns to look up at the watchtower, and there is a dissolve into black and white images from the Second World War. A German soldier peers through a pair of binoculars; then, we see three still shots of dead concentration camp prisoners hanging from or lying behind barbed-wire fences; these images are accompanied by the extra-diegetic rattle of machine-gun fire. Once again, the viewer is given a premonition of the bloody fate that awaits the tirailleurs.

This link between Nazi Germany and the French colonial regime in Africa contains clear echoes of the ideas elaborated by Aimé Césaire in his polemical anticolonial essay, Discours sur le colonialisme (1955). For Césaire, Europe's exploitation of Africa during the slave trade and subsequently under colonization was no different from Hitler's exploitation of Europe:

Oui, il vaudrait la peine d'étudier, cliniquement, dans le détail, les démarches d'Hitler et de l'hitlérisme et de révéler au très distingué, très humaniste, très chrétien bourgeois du XXe siècle qu'il porte en lui un Hitler qui s'ignore, qu'Hitler l'habite, qu'Hitler est son démon, que s'il le vitupère, c'est par manque de logique, et qu'au fond, ce qu'il ne pardonne pas à Hitler, ce n'est pas le crime en soi, le crime contre l'homme, ce n'est pas l'humiliation de l'homme en soi, c'est le crime contre l'homme blanc, c'est l'humiliation de l'homme blanc, et d'avoir appliqué à l'Europe des procédés colonialistes dont ne relevaient jusqu'ici que les Arabes d'Algérie, les coolies de l'Inde et les nègres d'Afrique.12

Attempts to create a moral equivalence between Nazism and colonialism are, of course, fraught with danger and, in particular, risk occulting the specific ideologies, practices, and contexts that shaped them both. However, the basic point made by both Sembene and Césaire remains an extremely pertinent one: the dominant narrative of the Second World War as a battle between the good, democratic nations of Europe and the bad, fascistic ones is a simplification that appears all too apparent when viewed from the perspective of France's colonial possessions.

The tirailleurs sénégalais who fought for the colonial ‘homeland’ during the war are subsequently denied the same rights as French citizens and are forced to return to their role as mere colonial subjects. This reduction in the men's status is powerfully conveyed by Sembene in the scene in which the tirailleurs are obliged to part with the US army uniforms that they had been given for their return home. (The fact that the French must rely on the US for handouts is another indication of the decline in their colonial prestige.) These uniforms carry significant symbolism for the men: they are a badge that marks them out as veterans of the war in Europe; they also, temporarily, remove the men's inferior colo- nized status. However, the colonial army disapproves of its indigènes rising above their station and, although the tirailleurs are due to be demobilized within days, they are forced to replace their American uniforms with the distinctive red chéchia and white shorts of the standard tirailleurs' uniform, one which infantilizes them and restores the image of the bon enfant of Y'a bon Banania fame. Literally and symbolically, the men are obliged to don their former servile identity. The camera lingers on the pile of boots and trousers that the tirailleurs cast upon the ground; then, as Pays queues to receive his uniform, the haunting harmonica tune returns and the looming presence of the watchtower casts its shadow over the men.

Camp de Thiaroye depicts its soldiers developing a pan-African sensibility and undergoing a political radicalization: they learn that the promise of assimilation and equality that France offered to its colonial subjects is quite simply an illusion. As the historian Myron Echenberg writes: "To the ex-POWs the authoritarian manner in which they were being treated was a bitter reminder that they were returning home to an unchanged colonial system, unappreciative of the great sacrifices they and their fallen comrades had made" (Echenberg, Conscripts, 101). To compound matters for these war veterans, their integrity and loyalty are being questioned by white, French officers who had spent the war out of harm's reach in the colonies (a fact underlined on several occasions in the film). In order to gain equality, they are obliged to engage in active resistance against the French army, which will lead to brutal retribution.

According to the historical record, the ‘mutinous’ tirailleurs were gunned down by loyal troops, who killed 35 of their number and wounded many others. However, Sembene chooses to depart from historical accuracy; in the film, the massacre is carried out by unseen aggressors in armoured vehicles who rake the camp with machine-gun fire and shells under cover of the dead of night. Understandably, some commentators have taken issue with Sembene's decision to depart from the ‘facts’. More bitingly, the critic Kenneth Harrow argues that Sembene alters the facts in order to fit the binaristic, Marxist, and pan-Africanist worldview that characterizes all of his work.13 For Harrow, Sembene's classic realist film style refuses ambiguity in favour of narrative certainty in which the film's message is at all times evident to the audience. While I concur with Harrow's judgement that Camp de Thiaroye is at times a rather schematic film, whose drama is weakened by the over-determined binaries within its narrative structure, I disagree fundamentally with his views both on the realism of Sembene's cinema and the nature of realist art in general. Harrow's article associates "the classic realist system" with a generalized "dominant ideology," and he asserts that "[t]he contemporary Western critic must refuse all forms of dominant discourse, even those employed so brilliantly and with such anti-colonial passion, by Ousmane Sembène" (Harrow 152). In effect, Sembene is cast as an old-fashioned modernist-realist who believes in simplistic notions of Truth and Reality, the implication being that ‘we’ have all moved beyond such illusions and should now embrace the ambiguity and ambivalence that are central to postmodern/poststructuralist thinking.

On a very basic level, the idea that Sembene's binaristic thinking leads him to hide the fact that those who carried out the massacre were themselves Africans is deeply misleading: throughout the film, we are made aware that the camp is guarded by African soldiers who man the gates and the watchtowers; moreover, as we saw earlier in Emitaï, it is the tirailleurs who fire on the unarmed peasants at the close of the film, which indicates that Sembene was more than aware of the ‘ambiguity’ of colonial violence. Indeed, ironically, one might argue that Camp de Thiaroye in fact embraces a greater degree of ambiguity than Emitaï, for it marks an attempt to understand those who had in the high nationalist period of the 1960-70s been vilified as the willing servants of empire.

In order to challenge the main thrust of Harrow's critique of Sembene, it is necessary to examine in greater depth the precise nature of the filmmaker's work and the political-aesthetic choices that he makes. The postmodern/poststructuralist turn in critical thinking over the past few decades has encouraged a rejection of binary thinking in favour of the exploration of ambiguity and ambivalence. While acknowledging the invaluable corrective value of such work, which attempts to counter the intellectual shortcuts taken by certain reductive forms of political criticism, it can often seem that ambiguity, the inbetween, the hybrid, have become the necessary components of any ‘right-thinking’ text, in the same way that political resistance was once deemed an artistic and critical necessity in a previous era. However, by what criteria are binary oppositions inherently wrong? As Timothy Brennan has remarked in relation to the writings of Amilcar Cabral, the independence leader of Guinea-Bissau (a man whom Sembene admired greatly):

[T]he dialectic of colonizer and colonized was simply not supposed to represent either a sociological explanation or a nuanced cultural model [for Cabral]. It was itself a focus—that is, a careful exclusion. He was not lumping difference together, nor was he unaware of multiple communities with their disparate interests. He did not emphasize the disparate because it would not then, in that project, have led to more than the impossibility of doing.14

Similarly, if Sembene deploys Manichean oppositions in his work, it is not because he is unaware of other positions, it is because he is attempting to mobilize people behind his vision of Africa's past, present, and future; his representations of the French colonial powers in Emitaï and Camp de Thiaroye are the most caricatured in his entire œuvre, but even in these cases he nevertheless presents the ‘opposing’ camp of the colonized in a comparatively complex fashion, highlighting internal conflicts based on gender (Emitaï ) and loyalty to the colonial powers (Camp de Thiaroye ). His work thus constitutes a fascinating example of a cinema that engages in the strategic use of binaries, but which is nonetheless consistently aware of the limits of fixed notions of identity and culture. Equally, the classification of his films as realist does not do justice to the full range of his filmmaking. Although the primary register of his films is often one of closely observed realism, they often contain symbolic, non-realistic or non-linear sequences, a process that is particularly pronounced in his films of the 1970s. Sembene's notion of realism is not, as is often argued, governed by a naturalistic sense of verisimilitude; on the contrary, his work is deeply informed by the Brechtian notion of realism as the deployment of form in the fashion that is most effective in revealing the fundamental reality of a situation. Semebene's films are thus a creative intervention into political and historical debates, bringing about what Charles Forsdick (via Glissant) has termed a "transformation-through-representation."15 In the willed amnesia of the post-colonial era, Sembene challenges the official discourse of Empire and invites both Africa and France to uncover its shared history:

On ne fait pas une histoire pour se venger, mais pour s'enraciner. Voilà pourquoi nous avons fait ce film pour le monde entier et non pas pour une race; c'est pour que vous sachiez que les noirs ont participé à la guerre, et que nous n'avons pas fini avec notre histoire qui est aussi la vôtre.16

The tirailleurs sénégalais who participated in the Second World War did so for two homelands, and it is this fundamental ambiguity that Sembene charts in these two films.


1. Eric T. Jennings, Vichy in the Tropics: Pétain's National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940-1944 (Stanford, CA: Stanford U P, 2001); Ruth Ginio, French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006).

2. For a more detailed analysis of both films, see David Murphy, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction (Oxford: James Currey; Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000), chapter 6.

3. By far the best work on the tirailleurs sénégalais is Myron J. Echenberg's Colonial Conscripts: The "Tirailleurs Sénégalais" in French West Africa, 1857-1960 (London: James Currey; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991). Sembene was himself a tirailleur, who saw action in Europe in the final years of the Second World War.

4. For a comprehensive account of literary representations of the tirailleur, see Janos Riesz, "La ‘Folie’ des tirailleurs sénégalais: fait historique et thème littéraire de la littérature coloniale à la littérature africaine de langue française," in J. P. Little and Roger Little, eds, Black Accents: Writing in French from Africa, Mauritius and the Caribbean (London: Grant and Cutler, 1997), 139-56.

5. Bakary Diallo, Force-Bonté (1926; Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, 1985).

6. Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L'Aventure ambiguë (Paris: 10/18, 1961).

7. Charles Forsdick traces the history of representations of the colonial massacre in his article, "Ceci n'est pas un conte, mais une histoire de chair et de sang: Representing the Colonial Massacre in Francophone Literature and Culture," in Lorna Milne, ed., Postcolonial Violence, Culture and Identity in Francophone West Africa, the Maghreb and the Antilles (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007), forthcoming.

8. The best account of the incidents at Thiaroye is to be found in Myron J. Echenberg, "Tragedy at Thiaroye: The Senegalese Soldiers' Uprising of 1944," in Peter C. W. Gutkind, Robin Cohen, and Jean Copans, eds., African Labor History (Beverly Hills, CA, London: Sage, 1978), 109-28.

9. Guy Hennebelle, "Ousmane Sembène: ‘En Afrique noire nous sommes gouvernés par des enfants mongoliens du colonialisme,’" Les Lettres Françaises (6-12 October 1971), 16.

10. The continued existence of an ‘official’ French version of colonial history was underlined by the French army's attempts to block the release of both films.

11. For two recent attempts to chart the experience of black people of different nationalities imprisoned by the Nazis, see Clarence Lusane, Hitler's Black Victims (New York: Routledge, 2003); Serge Bilé, Noirs dans le camps nazis (Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes, 2005).

12. Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955), 12.

13. Kenneth W. Harrow, "Camp de Thiaroye: Who's That Hiding in Those Tanks and How Come We Can't See Their Faces?", iris, 18 (1995), 147-52.

14. Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1997), 3.

15. Forsdick, "Ceci."

16. Samba Gadjigo et al., eds., Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993), 83.



Aguiar, Marian. "Smoke of the Savannah: Traveling Modernity in Sembène Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood." Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 2 (summer 2003): 284-305.

Argues that the Sembène's depiction of the railway system and the bodies of the Senegalese workers who built the system serves as a metaphor for the African anticolonial movements that began in the 1940s.

Jones, James A. "Fact and Fiction in God's Bits of Wood." Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (summer 2000): 117-31.

Examines differences between Sembène's fictional depiction of the 1947-48 railway strike in French West Africa in his novel God's Bits of Wood and the event's description in historical documents of the era.

Rapfogel, Jared, and Richard Porton. "The Power of Female Solidarity: An Interview with Ousmane Sembene." Cineaste (winter 2004): 20-5.

Interview in which Sembène discusses issues affecting women in contemporary Africa, including female genital mutilation, polygamy, and economic empowerment.

Additional information on Sembène's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125; Contemporary Authors—Brief Entry, Vol. 117; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 81; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 66; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–2007." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . 17 Nov. 2018 <>.

"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–2007." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . (November 17, 2018).

"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–2007." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.