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Darkened Screen

Black History Month Brings a Trove of Cinema Classics to Local Institutions

AFRICA TALKS TO YOU: A Scene From Ousmane Sembene's Xala

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/6/2008

Xala screens at the Baltimore Museum of Art Feb. 7 at 8:30 p.m.

Black History Month screenings info: www.artbma.org, www.creativealliance.org, and prattlibrary.org

Minister El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye (Thierno Leye) wears the black suit and white-bow-tie-on-white- shirt formal attire of a man on his way to his wedding, but he doesn't look one bit comfortable sitting in the back of the white Mercedes. To his right sits his first wife, Adja (Seune Samb), wearing formal traditional attire including a headdress. To his left sits his second wife, Oumi (Younouss Seye), clad in a revealing black dress, a styled wig, and seriously hip oversized black sunglasses. Nobody says a word.

This early scene from the late writer/director Ousmane Sembene's 1975 Xala wonderfully and wordlessly draws a number of the conflict lines permeating this daft, wily satire. Beye is part of an African contingent that unseats the colonial white powers in the city's chamber of commerce in Xala's pre-credit introduction. They know they have a great deal of business to contend with--so as to not let modernity make them lose their Africanity, as one man puts it--but to commemorate their memorable takeover, they all plan to attend Beye's wedding to his third wife. He's not divorced, mind you, it's just that a man's number of wives gives his status in his peer circle. And sitting in the modern car's backseat, Beye's African traditions have him uncomfortably squeezed between a woman of the past and the woman of the present as he moves toward an unknown future.

And so the central concerns of Sembene's movie--this one, and his entire cinematic and literary career--come into sharp if shifting focus: how Africans maintain a sense of identity as the world changes around them. What follows in Xala is equal parts sociopolitical essay and vivisection of the African male: Think of a 1970s Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen making a movie and you'll have a good idea.

Xala is February's free movie at the Baltimore Museum of Art (organized by City Paper contributor Eric Allen Hatch), and it also announces an entire month of black cinema screening around Baltimore. Both the Creative Alliance at the Patterson and the Enoch Pratt Free Library have African-American film series scheduled for Black History Month. The Creative Alliance reprises its Midnight Rambles series, which in previous years highlighted race films made during the 1910s to the '40s. This year's series checks in with black cinema of the 1970s and '80s, including Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song on Feb. 21, Charles Burnett's 1983 My Brother's Wedding Feb. 28, and Michael Schultz's 1971 Car Wash March 6. The Pratt screens Michael Romer's 1964 Nothing But a Man Feb. 9, Burnett's Killer of Sheep Feb. 9 and My Brother's Wedding Feb. 16, and Schultz's Krush Groove Feb. 23.

All these make for a great movie month for catching a historically under-represented American population on movie screens. What was tremendous about the proliferation of blaxploitation movies of the 1970s was African-American audiences finally seeing all those black faces on the big screen. As Isaac Julien's 2002 documentary Baadasssss Cinema noted, seeing yourself be yourself is a seductive entertainment. And it's probably why the Creative Alliance and the Pratt included movies such as Car Wash and Krush Groove in their series. Schultz is a veteran TV director whose movies--see also: 1979's Scavenger Hunt and 1987's Disorderlies--tended toward broad comedy. Neither Car Wash nor Krush Groove is an exceptional historical document in and of itself--Krush, especially, is almost laughably written and poorly acted--but these movies captured lives that weren't being portrayed in other popular fictions (Schultz's excellent 1975 Cooley High is also worth catching for this reason). And even in a movie as dated as Krush Groove, some scenes still retain an impish power--such as when LL Cool J saunters into a room, cues up his backing tape by calling out "Box," and erupts into "Can't Live Without My Radio." Now just try to imagine seeing that in a theater in the fall of 1985--three years before Yo! MTV Raps brought New York hip-hop into suburban homes nationwide.

Bear in mind that it's not only what you see on screen that's the story of the movies. As much as the scenes of Watts family life and kids playing in Burnett's Killer of Sheep are touching and still retain an intimacy 30 years on, as much as Abbey Lincoln and Ivan Dixon breathe insistent life into Nothing But a Man's story of self-assurance, what's going on behind the camera is just as important. The stories behind Sheep--which saw its theatrical release only last year--spawned just as much editorial coverage as glowing reviews. And the very making of Peebles' Sweetback--a story told in an uncanny, weird verisimilitude by his son Mario Van Peebles in his fictionalized making-of feature Baadassssss!--didn't just spawn blaxploitation as a genre, but it's also one of the most fiercely independent movies ever made and distributed.

Baadassssss! is a special kind of crazy, but it succinctly argues that the cultural life of the person behind the camera matters as much as the lives being represented on screen. And Sembene was a master of subtly insinuating his perspective into his films. At the entrance to Beye's wedding, a wealthy attendant indiscriminately tosses coins to people standing outside, and most people stoop to pick up such dregs. One approximately teenaged boy doesn't; he just stands there looking down at the coins on the road. A soldier quickly instructs him to pick them up, and Sembene frames this moment from the young boy's point of view, the soldier's words hitting his ears as he stares at two combat-booted feet straddling money. Xala has already positioned its main character between two Africas, and here Sembene stages another conflict: between the people with guns and money and the one without. Yes, it's a familiar conflict, but how Sembene navigates the personal and political in Xala is what makes it such a vital document--and a savage hoot.

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