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
Screenshot of Rue Cases Nègres DVD

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.

Rue Cases-Nègres is a gloriously life-enhancing and potentially life-changing classic, but sadly an underappreciated gem. For me, this is exactly the type of film that we should be showing our young people to instill pride, self-worth, dignity, knowledge of self and a hard work ethic of sacrifice and betterment — all the while promoting the myriad benefits of education. We should be screening films like Rue Cases-Nègres regularly in schools, youth clubs, community centers and, dare I say it, prisons. While not overtly political, it is a highly moral film, yet not so consciously didactic as to obscure the consummate artistry with which it is written, shot and directed.

At the end of the film, José as narrator tells us: “I will take my black shack alley with me,” reminding us to remember where we come from, no matter where we end up in life. He exhorts us to spare a thought for “all the black shack alleys all over the world,” to think of the marginalized, the ostracized and the oppressed wherever they may be, those whom society has cast out and unfairly discarded, often the global black poor. Rue Cases-Nègres implores us, by appealing to our humanity and compassion, to be our brother’s keeper.

So let’s take this occasion to remember, celebrate and salute this beautiful cinematic gem. Ye krik! Ye krak! I promise you that those words will stay with you forever.

Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.

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