Ousmane Sembene works quickly and directly, the rounding up of the Diola villagers for "l'armée noire" is staged as crystalline setup and punchline -- a long shot frames a trail surrounded by tall yellow grass, locals are grabbed by scuttling minions in French uniform and held as prisoners at a clearing, where they're assured "you're all volunteers... Upon your return, you will have fine war stories to tell your children." It is the beginning of WWII, the colonizer requests soldiers so villages are raided for strapping young men, leaving the women to tend to the work while the elders ruminate barrenly on the situation. Rice is both food and sacred substance, the white rulers demand the crops be turned over and the tribe revolts by hiding them, rifles are brought out -- the deities, including Emitai ("god of sky and war"), watch it all in silence, occasionally materializing to the fuming villagers via blunt jump cuts. Their altar is a skull propped atop a tree trunk surrounded by ivory, although the Europeans have their own idol to worship: A poster of Pétain is venerated, at least until news of De Gaulle reach the village and a new icon is erected. (The switcheroo is more baffling than the sacrifices to the gods: "Where does a two-star General outrank a seven-star Marshall?") This is the compressed critique of Sembene's earlier movies writ epic, with Therese M'bissine Diop, the Black Girl herself, amid the defiant women and her old employer, Robert Fontaine, in pith helmet surveying the toady troops. Opening with a dedication to "all African militants" and closing with the thwarted revolution of a cut to black, the film is nevertheless a portrait of a culture in need of internal change if colonial order is to be challenged, the way ahead (towards Ceddo, Faat Kiné, Moolaadé) is suggested by a tilt up the petrified baobab under which the elders bitch and moan, followed by a tilt down the luxurious tree under which the women fiercely resist. With Ibou Camara, Ousrnane Camara, Joseph Diatta, Kalifa, Dji Niassebanor, Sibesalang, and Michel Renaudeau.
--- Fernando F. Croce