Revisiting the Film: Little Senegal

Updated review. Originally posted December, 2011

Last night while in the throes of insomnia, I decided to lull myself to sleep with a mini-movie marathon of sorts via Netflix. I watched and stopped several films before deciding on one: Little Senegal.  This film left enough of an indelible impression after I finished watching it; I was up until about 4:00 AM this morning mulling it over.
The Netflix reviews were ambivalent at best, suggesting it was dull, uninteresting, and that the acting was "wooden", however, as far as I'm concerned this reaction is par for the course from folks who don't have an emotional or vested interest in these types of films unless it's palatable and more along the lines of ‘magical negro’ fare with a white savior trope.

Little Senegal, a 2001 film directed by French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, was far from uninteresting. It explored elements of the African Diasporic, immigrant experience and was somewhat reminiscent of Haile Gerima's film Sankofa, in that it charts the history and effects of the Atlantic slave trade. While the main character in Sankofa— a self-absorbed, black fashion model living in the present-day— is forced back in time to a plantation in the West Indies, to experience the horrors of slavery and learns the importance of community and advocacy; the protagonist in Little Senegal, an elderly man named Alloune, researches his heritage and those of his ancestors who were kidnapped and sold into American slavery, prompted by his own curiosity.

Alloune works at a historical museum on Gorée Island in Senegal, where he's a guide for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. While many tourists make pilgrimages to Gorée Island in hopes of connecting with their heritage, Alloune's uses his free time to extensively research his family tree. His exploration takes him from Senegal to the United States, where he learns of ancestors who were sold into slavery to plantation owners in South Carolina, where he begins his American journey.

Alloune meticulously pores over the archives at different historical sites while in South Carolina and learns of distant relatives rechristened with the surname, Robinson.
Armed with this knowledge, Alloune eventually ends up in New York's Le Petit Senegal area in Harlem, where he stays with his jaded, cab driver nephew Hassan and Hassan's skittish, submissive girlfriend Biram, in a tiny flat. Searching for possible relatives and descendants with the Robinson moniker, Alloune meets a caustic and embattled black-American woman named Ida, who reluctantly hires him to work at her small bodega, and her troubled, pregnant estranged granddaughter. Alloune and Ida end up developing an unlikely bond.

Little Senegal is a melancholy film with intermittent moments of hope, and it touches on several issues prevalent within the black American and black immigrant communities. It also delves into gender roles, culture clashes, and community. If I could offer one critique, it’d be that Bouchareb didn't flesh out a couple of plot devices that would’ve given the film even more depth; particularly the relationship dynamic between Hassan and his girlfriend Biram. The unequal balance between them had the potential to be another compelling supporting storyline.  
Biram was always frantically scribbling away in a notebook during what little free time she had to herself. Viewers learn much later (too late, actually) that she'd been taking English classes in hopes of moving beyond her lot as Hassan's silently compliant girlfriend; another interesting but cursory subplot, were the scenes featuring Hassan's co-worker and flat mate Karim (played by French-Moroccan actor Roschdy Zem) and his struggle to maintain his green card marriage to a stereotypically strong-willed black-American woman. Speaking of which, I found Bouchareb's interpretation of black American women and western Black culture in general, a bit problematic. The portrayals were one-dimensional and seemed to illustrate the global view of American 'blackness' as seen on TV, and gave a bit of insight into how some non-American black people (and people around the world, in general) view those of us descendant from American slavery... which might be one of the reasons black Americans and black people with international backgrounds, bump heads.

Random aside: Several years ago, I took a Yellow Taxi ride home driven by a man from East Africa (I believe Ethiopia). We engaged in friendly banter during the ride, and he expressed pleasant surprise that I'd been to college and wasn't a loud, wanton single mother with a slew of 'baby daddies' left in my wake. 

I had to, as patiently as I could, explain to him that black Americans aren't a monolithic group, that most of the stereotypes ascribed to us are overstated, how American born black folks who don't have the luxury of easily overcoming dire circumstances are marginalized on a whole other level, and that most of us are just as driven, harbor a good worth ethic, and desire the same basic things most other ethnic groups strive for. I told him that it was unfair of him to suggest all black women live a particular way, when he doesn't know all of us. Fortunately, he received the critique well and without any further judgment. 

Moving along, one significant (but somewhat cringeworthy) scene was an exchange between Alloune and Hassan. Hassan, who wasn't entirely supportive of his uncle's exploration into the past, asks his uncle why he's bothering trying to bridge the gap between black American and Senegalese cultures. Alloune, in turn, asks his nephew if he’s even tried to relate to American born black folks, to which Hassan argues: "We're too black for them! They don't like us. Hold out your hand to them and they'll stab it. Kill you even. They like you, but prefer your money."

The performances in Little Senegal are subtle (the black American characters notwithstanding); definitely not ‘wooden’ as suggested, and the cinematography helped frame the story. It’s a film that will definitely encourage viewers to explore further dialogues about tenuous intra-racial relations and cultural misunderstanding between American born black people and those of the diaspora who've expatriated to the States but whose narratives are unlike ours; and who are navigating, and trying to grasp, experiences unlike their own, while work to sustain their own traditions and identities.

1 comment

BeautyinBaltimore said...

This movie never came up in my suggestions. I am so adding it to my list.

What I love about streaming video is how you can jump around until you find something that appeals to you.