The Slave Ship Musical You Never Knew Existed

by The Technical Blogs


It’s safe to say that the Mauritanian French director Med Hondo’s “West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty” is a unique film. That might be the only safe thing about it.

The first African movie musical, it traces nearly four centuries of French colonialism with unsparing clarity and relentless creativity, shot entirely on a replica of a slave ship built within an abandoned Citroën factory in Paris.

Since its wonky release in 1979, it has quietly built a group of devoted fans, including the Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who placed it at the top of his list of the greatest films of all time for Sight & Sound magazine in 2022. But a new 4K restoration and a weeklong run at Film Forum might finally land it in the wider canon.

That lack of recognition has been neither accidental nor surprising. When Hondo’s feature debut, “Soleil Ô,” a docudrama about Black immigrant life, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, it landed him at the vanguard of the still-nascent African cinema, but its subject matter made future financing difficult to secure. He raised money for “West Indies,” an adaptation of Daniel Boukman’s play “The Slavers,” through African private investors and a loan from Algeria’s public broadcasting organization; many cast members were his friends and worked without pay.

“When you watch his films, which speak truth to power in a very direct, albeit extremely artful, way, you can see why this is not a filmmaker who was widely accepted by the mainstream,” said Ashley Clark, the curatorial director of the Criterion Collection, a sister company of Janus Films, which is distributing the touring restoration.

With an epic scope and a darkly satirical irony, “West Indies” compares France’s historical methods of colonialism, beginning with a cabal of contemporary leaders assessing how to maintain control over their Caribbean colonies, then moving back to the beginnings of slavery.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade, the film argues through its ever-shifting timeline, was just the first in a series of coerced migrations, later echoed in the modern state’s encouraging Europeans to vacation on the islands and Black laborers from the African diasporas to fill low-level jobs back in France. The ship plays host to the back-and-forth: a claustrophobic theatrical setting for the film’s varied songs, which alternately exalt the communal vibrancy of African rhythm and parody the insincerity of Western showmanship.

“There are really inspired things that Hondo does with the blocking and choreography, especially transitions from certain areas of the ship to others that I think are just capital-C cool,” Jenkins said on a video call.

He first encountered “West Indies” while on a press tour promoting his film “Moonlight,” when someone asked him about his knowledge of African cinema. This led him down a rabbit hole that ended in his finding a bootleg copy online. A few years later, when the Telluride Film Festival asked him to be guest programmer for the 2021 edition, he knew the team there would source whatever he wanted to screen and chose the tough-to-track-down musical as its opening night film.

“I was blown away when I first saw it, but saddened that this wasn’t something in the canon,” Jenkins said. “If you’re a young person who loves movies, how is this not one of the first five films that someone’s telling you to watch?”

Unbeknown to Jenkins, his request was in line with an increasing interest the Harvard Film Archive experienced after Hondo’s death in 2019. Harvard acquired prints of many of Hondo’s works when he was selected for the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship, which was established to support African filmmakers. Amy Sloper, Harvard’s collections archivist, said that the African Film Heritage Project’s restoration of “Soleil Ô” two years earlier led to their receiving a $50,000 grant to create new restorations of “West Indies” and the director’s 1986 feature “Sarraounia.”

The Harvard archive, which only holds subtitled copies, collaborated with Ciné-Archives, the French Communist Party’s audiovisual preservation organization, to access the film’s original 35-millimeter print.

Annabelle Aventurin, who coordinated the restorations on behalf of Ciné-Archives, said that French interest in Hondo’s cinema increased after an incident in April 2020 in which police officers were caught on video taunting an Egyptian man who had jumped into the Seine to evade arrest. Their racist jeers included a phrase featured in the original title of Hondo’s film, “Mes Voisins” or “My Neighbors.

“That film was leaked online because so many people were searching for it,” Aventurin said in an interview. “It’s not like Hondo’s films aren’t politically contemporary. They’re about racism and violence, which unfortunately still happen. For us at Ciné-Archives, this restoration became a kind of light at the end of the tunnel of lockdown.”

Peter Sellars, an American theater director and resident curator at the Telluride Film Festival, remembers studying in Paris when “West Indies” was originally released. He introduced its 2021 screening there alongside Jenkins.

“It is one of the great liberatory films and part of an incredible body of work where you can feel the spirit of community resistance and uprising completely at your fingertips,” he said in a phone interview. “The dance has a specific ethnic and historical rootedness that’s not just decorative or entertainment, but rallying people with their bodies to create a ripple effect of direct action.”

Along with Anthology Film Archives, which will screen eight of the director’s other works, Film Forum will host introductions by Aboubakar Sanogo, a professor at Carleton University in Canada and arguably the leading Hondo scholar.

Sanogo said on a video call that Hondo “was among the towering figures of African cinema, and made films that pushed the envelope in the direction of African liberation with daring formal, thematic and political momentum. But this marginalized his brand of filmmaking.”

Sanogo, who became a friend of Hondo’s, explained that the original rollout of “West Indies” was complicated by reneged distribution deals with the Gaumont Film Company. The initial plan to screen in nine Parisian cinemas was essentially cut in half at the last minute, and its few international screenings were stunted by underreported box office numbers.

Hondo would go on to finance his works by dubbing American films, becoming the French voice of Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.

Clark compared the film and Hondo’s complicated history to the present moment, noting “the fire and the fury with which Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project was attacked.”

“In America right now, there is an all-out assault on education,” he said. “That’s what makes ‘West Indies’ continue to feel like a dangerous film.”

He added, “It’s the very fact of the film, the very fact of its existence, that feels like a hard-won triumph.”


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