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Honoring the French Film 'Rue Cases-Negres'

The 1983 classic tells the story of a young black orphan growing up with his grandmother in 1930s Martinique.

Screenshot of Rue Cases Nègres DVD

(The Root) -- Ye krik! Ye krak! Each time I hear those four words, I get goose bumps. To this day, that strikingly evocative French Creole refrain haunts me. Popularized by its use in a sadly much-neglected and long-forgotten foreign film with subtitles, the call-and-response exchange between a little black boy and an old black man is to this day the greeting of choice between my best friend and me -- not as pretentious as it sounds, mind you, given that we are both ardent Francophiles, both speak French Creole and both have strong links to the Caribbean.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the release of one of the most dazzlingly beautiful, exquisitely lyrical and profoundly moving films of all time. I refer, of course, to Rue Cases-Nègres (Black Shack Alley), the by turns elegiac, uplifting and gorgeously poetic 1983 film by director Euzhan Palcy, based on the novel of the same name by the Martinican author Joseph Zobel (1950).

Winner of the Silver Lion award at the 1983 Venice Film Festival and a handful of César Awards (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) at the time, despite its cult status in Martinique and the Creole-speaking Diaspora, Rue Cases-Nègres is scarcely known in the Anglophone cinematic world.

The film tells the story of orphan José, a young black boy growing up with his grandmother on a plantation in 1930s Martinique, and of his ardent determination to escape a life in the cane fields and better himself through education, despite numerous hardships, not to mention French colonial racism.

It also charts the development of José's abiding friendship with an older man on the plantation, Monsieur Medouze, who becomes his spiritual father and mentors him in the ways of the world, not least in the importance of knowing his history, understanding that there is more to life than the plantation and moreover being fiercely proud of his African roots.

The film's beautifully told central leitmotif is one of liberation through education. At school, José is made to learn the phrase "L' instruction set la clef qui oeuvre la deuxième porte de notre liberté" ("Education is that key that opens the second door to our freedom"). In Martinique, the first door to liberty was the abolition of slavery, which occurred there in 1848. However, 80 years later the black people of Martinique were practically still enslaved on the same plantations; education was the only way out for a better and more prosperous future.

After passing a tough entrance exam, José duly wins a partial scholarship to the best school in the capital, Fort-de-France, where his classmates are from a much higher social background. Amantine, José's loving but draconian grandmother, is the epitome of matriarchal self-sacrifice, moving with José to a shack on the outskirts of Fort-de-France so that he can attend school, and ironing clothes on top of her daily domestic chores to earn the money to pay the rest of his school fees. The depictions of the tiring extra manual labor she undertakes so that her grandson can have the educational opportunities she never had are beyond poignant.

Thus it is all the more harrowing when José is accused of cheating on his first composition assignment, since the teacher cannot believe that José's essay can be as good as it is, without having been copied.

Combining a trenchant critique of French colonialism, a fervent pride in Martinique's African heritage and pointing up the painful idiosyncracies of what it means to be black and French, Rue Cases-Nègres is tender, life-affirming and devastatingly sad in equal measure.

The indelible scars of slavery run deep, and its vestiges can be seen throughout the film. The film also skillfully depicts the full gamut of 1930s Martinican society with disturbing realism -- from rich white men with their beautiful Creole mistresses to self-hating black gigolos pleasuring white women (and, in so doing, playing up to nefarious and debilitating racial stereotypes), mixed-race children, maids, domestics and illiterate field laborers, perennially drunk and placated on rum, not to mention the racial discrimination that tacitly operates on the island -- one of the more pernicious legacies of French colonialism.