Sugar Cane Alley, originally Rue Cases Negres, was an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s novel with the same title. The film was directed by Euzhan Palcy, whom was born and brought up on the archaic island of Martinique in the French West Indies like Zobel. The film depicts the teenage life and endeavors of a boy named Jose who lives in a rundown-town of Martinique in the mid-1930s, giving viewers a sense of appreciation for what they have. Jose lives with his grandmother and is well-acquainted with the French colonial presence, but they are far away from his world and life of dearth (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002). He causes ruckus and learns important life morals from an aged, former slave. Despite his neuroses, Jose’s meticulousness with his studies eventually pays off. What is more, Sugar Cane Alley toddles through issues relating to society, politics, and economy. Thus, gaining director Euzhan Palcy the 1983 Cesar “Best First Film”.
Jose lives in the sugar cane fields of Martinique in the mid-1930s. From a seemingly normal life, according to what he knows, his world takes quite a turn when he wins a scholarship to attend high school in the capital, Port-de-France. His life becomes
one of many valuable lessons. Firstly, he learns about the complexity of racial dealings through his friendship with a half black and white boy, the illegitimate son of the Creole plantation owner. Secondly, he learns about misuse of power when he is confronted with a female neighbor that offers him a meal in exchange for servant work, resulting in late attendance for his class. Thirdly, he rebels against his stuck-up professor by running away from school to throw rocks at her treasured dishes. (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002). Lastly, he learns about the African roots of his culture from his guru, who lives in the same village, Medouze.
Harsh realities begin due to the fact that Jose’s scholarship is merely partial and his grandmother is forced to drag her tired, old body from door to door in the rich sectors of town as a laundress. So it is not enough that he already requires himself to make a great effort to meet the deadlines and orders of his teacher, but he also comes to realize where he falls in the class divide. Of course, this is something completely new to him as he had come from a hometown of equal footing. Plus, Jose comes face to face with racial and colonial aspects of his life. The racial element comes into play during his “moment of glory”, when his teacher reads his essay aloud to his class. His essay is a representation of a paean to the lives of poverty-stricken African Americans, inspired by the ancient tales of slavery told to him by Medouze. Medouze had told Jose about a time when he was young boy just like him wherein the blacks emerged from the hills to invade St. Pierre. With them, they had in tow various weaponry like sticks, machetes, guns, and torches. According to Medouze, they were ready to attack and burn all the homes and rather than rebelling, the whites remained in their abundant homes out of fear and simply waited to die. Upon this occurrence, Medouze claimed that t was the end of slavery. (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002). Though the teacher accuses him of plagiarism, which causes him to take off, it develops into a turning point for Jose. Moreover, it is truly
marked as a milestone as his teacher later decides to follow him home to express his change of opinion and to congratulate him. Finally, Jose is commenced with a future that can answer questions about his roots, even as his grandmother passes away.
The film has high quality production, in spite of a humble budget. Palcy’s direction is executed with illusory elegance. It contentedly unifies psychology and realism in which conventional fiction works are made. The use of unknown child actors is key in this film and is not only exceptionally successful on the children’s part, but also on the part of Palcy’s directing (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002).
Through the length of the film, Palcy utilized cinematic juxtaposition in depicting the power struggle, oppositional class forces in society to produce sense out of conflict (Review of Sugar Cane Alley, 1997). In doing this, the film followed an expansive subject of existence as clashing components that would integrate the structure of the mosaic. The scenes would continuously change from night to day and vice versa, as if diffusing extreme opposite poles. To elaborate, there were actually two specific scenes that stood dominant towards one another. First, there was the funeral scene, wherein the characters have made a fire and they are engrossed in shadows, as opposed to the second and following scene that is set in water and uses bright sunlight (Review of Sugar Cane Alley, 1997). Thus, Palcy shrewdly illustrated contradictory elements of dark vs. light, fire, vs. water. The film retains the psychological experience of the teenage boy hero as a focal point, but quantifies each scene with illuminating and contextualizing material. It conveys important meaning without lessening the tale to the same (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002). There is deep sense involved, but the picture is enlightened, so to speak. Indeed, Sugar Cane Alley is a case of paying attention to meticulous detail.
Palcy’s film ends by emphasizing how the basic economic connection in which black labor produces proceeds for white owners stayed the same after liberation. The same is apparent through Jose, his grandmother, and Medouze’s storytelling. First, Jose must adapt to French ways as a source of socio-economic mobility. Secondly, his grandmother is forced to do laundry for privileged, white folks just to get by and to uphold his education. Lastly, it seems that Medouze’s primary function is to open senses to perception that defies the hardcore truths in history, regardless of acknowledgement of the roles of black resistance to slavery
Racial and class issues are directly confronted in the film through Palcy’s character, Leopald. This character exemplifies the socio-political position played by the “mulatto” or bi-racial personality in Martinican society. Furthermore, he is the child of a white Frenchman and his black mistress. Leopold’s ego is badly bruised when he overhears his father on his deathbed stating that he will not pass his French family name, de Thorail, to his son. (Literature Film Quarterly, 2002). For his father, his name is too above a bastard child, even he is his own. By collaborating the elements of race and society into a lucid character and subplot, the director is able to develop an equally important story. Leopold demonstrates the fusion but troubled nature of Caribbean identity and there is a direct relationship between his political consciousness and his white father’s rejection. Hence, this crack in power is definitely meant to expose the politics and fundamental biases against African cultural heritage.
The familial, social, political and economical issues in Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley are probed through her characters. Not only does Palcy utilize the likes of her protagonist, Jose, but also through her sub-characters and her sub-plots who serve as important influences to Jose. Moreover, all of his lessons are taken through his encounters with each sub-character. He learns about racial relations and the history of slavery through Medouze, while learning a different aspect of race, society and politics through Leopold who also involves family hardship. Through his own family or primary caretaker, his grandmother, he comes to realize the space between where he came from and what he must be in order to advance. Palcy’s use of authentic actors and eye-catching footage that demonstrate conflicting elements of earthly life fuse reality with something coherent in a very suitable manner. To conclude, the film and all its entities are of great value and open viewer’s eyes to important issues without preaching.