Tag Archives: Africa

Lorraine Hansberry’s (posthumous) third Broadway play

Lorrraine Hansberry  (1930-65) knew the South Side of Chicago (where she grew up, and where “Raisin in the Sun” is set) and New York’s Greenwich Village (where she lived as an adult, and where she set “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) better than she knew Africa. Nonetheless, I find her primary African character in her posthumously produced play “Les Blancs,” Tshembe, more credible than the American journalist, Charlie, who is its seeming protagonist. Charlie strikes me as a device to stimulate exposition by other characters, including Tshembe and “Madame,” the wife of a medical missionary who seems to be based on Albert Schweitzer but who is on the other side of the river and does not appear in the play.

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Tshembe has left Africa, and married a white woman, who has borne a child. He returns for the funeral of his father, a Kwi chief—who was also covertly the local head of the “terrorists” (based, I think, partly on Kenya’s Mau-Mau, partly on Algerians rebelling against their French masters). Tshembe’s brother, Abioseh, is also part of the resistance passing as a simple-minded servant of the European missionaries.

When the play premiered late in 1970 (which is to say after Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia had become known and led to furious protests, especially on college campuses, including Jackson State and Kent State, where protesters were shot), it divided the audience and critics, much as the plays of her idol, Sean O’Casey had in their day.

She was accused of supporting genocide of whites in Africa by some and of displaying (stereo)types rather than individuals (I would agree in regard to Charlie, but not Madame and not the Matoseh brothers).

 

The sanest response seems to have come from Harold Clurman in The Nation

“Les Blancs” is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of black and white relations all over the world. It clarifies but does not seek to resolve, the historical and human problems involved. It does not provide an Answer. It is an honest play in which tought-provoking matter is given arrestingly theatrical body.

Despite a much-praised, powerful performance by James Earl Jones as Tshembe, the play did not run long on Broadway and seems largely forgotten. Whereas I thought that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” read better than I can imagine it playing on stage, I think that “Les Blancs” is playable, as well as interesting to read, and is a worthy companion to, for instance, Yulisa Amadu “Pat” Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future.

(The title is a strike at Jean Genet’s (1959) Les Noirs, which she disliked, but the French title gives the unfortunate impression that it is set in a French rather than and English African colony. Genet’s play deals with black identity, anger at colonialism, and the murder of a white woman, btw. And James Earl Jones also appeared in the first American production of Genet’s play, off-Broadway.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A French colonial neo-noir based on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

I can’t say that I “found” Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 movie “Coup de Torchon” (Clean Slate; Oscar-nominatd for best foreign-language film) engaging. It is not a good sign that even after watching it, I can’t remember whether I saw it on its initial release (I think so, and that it is/was not at all a good choice for a date movie; if I did see it, it was on a blind date that my landlord set up with a single mother who loved French films). Among the things it is, it is too long (for me; I also think “Brokeback Mountain,” “Munich,” and “The New World” are too long). The running time is 128 minutes, which is not only too long for a film noir, but too much time spent with Lucien Cordier, this film’s anti-hero.

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What else is it? It is a movie based on American hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson’s* Pop. 1280 transferred from the American South of before the Civil Rights Era to Bourkassa, Senegal of 1938. The grubby Texas sheriff could not translate to France (Tavernier recalls in a lengthy 2000 DVD bonus retrospect—in English that is somewhat difficult to understand), but a police chief in a colonial backwater had similar untrammeled (unsupervised) latitude. Corruption goes with the turf, though much more small-scale extortion of off-the-record fines than the kind of running the town of Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil.” It is a movie when a lethargic nobody sets out on a well-covered set of slayings.

Although “Coup de Torchon” does not look like “Touch of Evil,” and Philippe Noiret was not as obese as Orson Welles ca. “Touch of Evil,” like Welles’s sheriff, Noiret’s policeman Lucien Cordier also has erotic relations with women far more attractive than he is—a very uninhibited Isabelle Huppert (or is that redundant)? and a more proper Irène Skobline as a new school-teacher. Although at the outset, it seems that Lucien Cordier has no authority and is held in great contempt by his superiors and by local white lawbreakers, there is never any serious investigation of his crimes (no Charlton Heston figure to the rescue). The “lawman” gets away with murder—six times. (Tavernier expresses puzzlement that the population in the title of the French translation was reduced to 1795, but there is a scene in which the official view that the Africans do not count as human is expressed, and Lucien reduces and/or causes to be reduced the white population by five.)

It is not clear to me whether he takes literally the advice of one of the superiors who literally kicks him around to take out the pimps, or realizes that he can get away with murders and embarks on rounds of “social cleansing.” (wiping the slate clean of the title, though there is also a literal text to be wiped off a blackboard within the film). The new schoolteacher (Irène Skobline) opines that he pretends to be stupid, and he shows considerable savvy in diverting any suspicions from himself. As a police chief who never jails anyone, Lucien is a joke. When he turns to “social cleansing,” he is not at all bumbling.

The first three murders fall short of judicial standards of “justifiable homicide,” but can be rationalized (even the priest seems to endorse his choice of starting points… and I didn’t fail to notice that Lucien signs a confession “Jesus”). But then there is one that is only expedient of someone who is not someone who “deserves to die” by any stretch of the imagination. (Lucien tells the man why he has to die, and persuades me not at all.).Tavernier says that it shocks American audiences more than French ones. Not least in being the calmest of the slayings, it is the most shocking and least defensible. There is some perverse comedy in the other slayings and, as I’ve noted, the ones before this are of bad/evil men, but this one may be realistic but is appalling. I don’t understand how Jean Renoir can have viewed the movie being about “redemption through crime.” Lucien makes the place better for himself (and I definitely see crimes), but I do not see any “redemption.”

Philippe Noiret was playing against type, his lovable basset hound screen persona. His Lucien is lazy and very laissez-faire until he starts shooting people. Noiret manages to leave viewers guessing about whether he let himself go in the tropics or was always lazy, and whether he is dull-witted or hiding a canniness (he’s definitely better at setting up alibis than the jealous husband in Quai de Orfèvres!) and waiting patiently for revenge at all the slights he has received, including those of his wife (Stéphane Audran, the wife of Claude Chabrol) and her live-in sponger lover who claims to be her brother (Eddy Mitchell). If he is meant to be an angel of death, he is probably the homeliest one in screen history! He strikes me as quite a soulless killer (though I’m not sure why killers should be soulful!). His lack of ambition makes him more menacing, I guess.

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Isabelle Huppert (who also starred in Tavernier’s “The Lace Maker”)is quite randy. The Rose whom she plays is sweet, is treated badly by her brutish husband (Victor Garrivier), and exploited by Lucien. Complicit as she is in four of the slayings, she is a sympathetic character. Similarly, Irène Skobline, in her only major screen role (she played another supporting role in Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe in the Afternoon”)as Anne, the teacher, becomes an accomplice after the fact, but is relatively sympathetic. As the brother of one of the two disappeared pimps (one of whom he also played), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Sauniere in “The Da Vinci Code”) is excellent (being expertly confused by Lucien) in the sequence that provides “black humor” that is funny (there is much sardonic humor in the movie, including Lucien’s direct statement that going after the real criminals in the colonial milieu is forbidden to him, but I would not classify the movement (or that statement!) as a “comedy”).

Tavernier explains the use of steadicams (tracking being out of the question on location in Senegal), the subdued late afternoon colors, and the literal decentering of images (avoiding usual visual compositions) in the bonus feature. Pierre-William Glenn provided the wilted look he wanted. (Senegal also looks plenty dry in the two (postcolonial) Senegalese movies I’ve seen in the last year, Hyenas and Touki-Bouki). Tavernier also presents an alternative ending (going much farther in wiping the slate clean!) that was shot and explains why he did not use it, in a separate bonus feature (sitting in the same place as in the lengthy interview one). And there’s a theatrical trailer.

Being shot in color—even unsaturated color—disqualified the film from being a noir for me. The setting is too rural (a town of 12800!) and too much of it occurs during daytime to be a prototypical neo-noir, though the amorality of the characters is certainly noirish, Audran is a noir wife, and a policeman who is a serial killer doing “social cleansing” fits in the universe of noir amoralism. Tavernier claims that the movie is “African noir” despite the focus being almost entirely on the French there (and it is officially a French movies, submitted for Oscar consideration by France, had a French director and crew, and French stars… and is in French). The Africans are mostly backdrop (Tavernier explains that he wanted to de-exoticize Africa without getting into why this required having no black African characters with any degree of agency.)

 

I think that the opening with a total solar eclipse (which Lucien watches frightening some Wolof boys) was a bad idea (quite aside from there not having been any total solar eclipses in Senegal in 1938!). It strikes me as a far too blatant metaphor both for the blotting out of morality and the marginality of Africans in their own land.

I also find the shooting of a man who has done nothing bad (in general or to Lucien in particular) as so reprehensible, so damning of the antihero, that I wanted not to watch the rest of the movie. (In fact, I did not finish watching it until the next day.)

* Screen adaptations of Thompson writing include Stephen Frears’s “The Grifters,” Stanley Kubrick’s early “The Killing.” and Sam Peckinpah’s relatively late (and very graphically violent) “The Getaway.” In Tavernier’s interview, he recalls that Thompson listed his major influences as Miguel Cervantes, Karl Marx, and Richard Wright. I can see some of the naturalistic violence of Wright, but the other two would not have occurred to me…

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Characters without much sense of individual definition asserting existence through “actes gratuités”—particularly murder—is a well-established French trope, most notably in André Gide’s Les caves du Vatican (translated as “Lafcadio’s Adventures”) and Albert Camus’s L’étranger (The Stranger). Both of those authors observed the boredom and malfeasance of French colonial officials in Africa (as did Georges Simenon, who wrote of crimes there and many a killer).

Especially given the American distaste for the notion that we are responsible for what we fail to challenge, I was surprised to see that the IMDB cumulative rating for “Coup de Torchon” was #2 among Tavernier movies, with “‘Round Midnight” in eighth place.

©2006, 2019 Stephen O. Murray

A Bend in the River: Naipaul’s “masterpiece”? If so, scratch him from the list of “masters”!

I read in several obituaries that Bend in the River (1979) was V. S. Naipaul’s  (1932-2018) masterpiece. It has been gathering dust on a bookcase of unread books for nearly three decades. I was not engaged by the beginning, and was never very interested in the narrator, an unobservant Muslim of South Asian ancestry who grew up on the east coast of Africa and settled as a storekeeper in the middle (not Uganda, seemingly Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire). Salim has opinions about many matters, but the book seems more a set of mini-essays than a novel. It has Naipaul’s misogyny and cruelty to women, his contempt for Africans, though not developing his hatred for Islam and contempt for South Asians.

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I don’t think the book idealizes European colonialism, though painting a gloomy picture of a post-independence cult of a ruler who can only be toppled by violent civil war (that is likely to wear a tribalist mask). The corruption of the 1970s is not counterpoised to a golden age of Belgian colonialism, though invidiously contrasted to urbane London. (He does note that East African slavery both predated and postdates the colonial era, which is true.)

Naipaul was not much of a storyteller and none of the characters with the partial exception of the academic sycophant of the Big Man, Raymond, strikes me as a somewhat developed (hardly rounded) character. I was mildly amused by the burger franchise, imported lock, stock, and barrel from the West (though the beef is local), but did not believe in Yvette (Raymond’s wife who has a protracted affair with Salim) or the other characters, including the other alien (non-African) merchants.

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(Naipual in 2016, photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury)

I think I’ve read eight Naipaul novels, though none during this millennium, plus The Search for Eldorado and various pieces published in the New York Review of Books. He is loathed by the Afro-Caribbeans I know, but if this was his best, I don’t think he was a great writer. I don’t want to risk rereading his early books set in Trinidad and finding that I no longer like them either,

Bend in the River was a Booker Prize finalist (he’d won for In a Free State in 1971) was on the Guardian’s (Robert McCrum’s) 2015 list of 100 best novels in English, on the Guardian’s best novels of all times, and Naipaul was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray