Little Senegal, three time Oscar nominated writer, director Rachid Bouchareb’s 2001 dramatic portrayal of an African man’s search for the descendants of his ancestors who had been sold into slavery, is now available for the first time in this country. Born in France of Algerian immigrants, Bouchareb’s first nomination for the Academy’s Best Foreign Language film was the 1995 Dust of Life, the story of the plight of an Amerasian youth in Vietnam after the departure of the American military. Days of Glory (2006), his second nomination is a WWII story attacking the unequal treatment of Algerian soldiers fighting for France. His most recent film, the controversial 2010 Outside the Law, is the saga of three brothers and the struggle for Algerian independence was the Algerian entry for Best Foreign film for the 83rd Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, Little Senegal while dealing with compelling material doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Bouchareb’s work. The central problem is the acting which is too often wooden and amateurish. Indeed, if IMDb is correct, nearly all of the film’s cast had no prior acting experience and little after. To be sure there are exceptions. Sotigui Kouyaté who plays Alloune the elderly African in search of his relatives is intense and stoical, if not especially dynamic. Bouchareb stalwart, Roschdy Zem turns in a professional performance as an African trying to get papers to stay in the U.S. through a phony marriage. Sharon Hope has her moments as the strong willed American grandmother, Ida, Alloune discovers at the end of his search. By and large however, the acting is stiff and disappointing.
Alloune’s quest begins in Africa on Gorée Island, an embarkation point for natives transported into slavery. He is serving as a guide at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in his spare time he studies the archives for information about his ancestors. What he discovers leads him to a plantation in South Carolina and eventually to Harlem in New York City, where he discovers Ida and her estranged pregnant granddaughter. For some reason he goes about trying to help them without telling them about their relationship, and eventually a romance develops between the elders. A sub plot deals with the plight of African immigrants living in America as Alloune begins his stay in Harlem living with a nephew who is working in the City as a driver for a car service and two other Africans.
Bouchareb’s script focuses on the cultural conflicts and discrimination between the American blacks and the new African immigrants. The animosity between the two groups is highlighted in the very first contact we are shown between them. The nephew is working a second job in a garage and he and the customer whose car he’s working on get into a hassle over nothing which ends in a fist fight. The sniping and distrust between the two groups continues throughout the film. Interestingly enough there is almost no picture of contemporary white racism. There are news reports about the Amadou Diallo shooting and the James Byrd murder in Texas, so the problem is not ignored, but it doesn’t get the same kind of focus as the problems between the blacks. Indeed it is the problems between the blacks that bring the film to its climax.
If Little Senegal falls short of expectations, it does like Bouchareb’s other films deal seriously with significant issues. He is a socially conscious film maker with a commitment to making films with a point of view, and this film is no exception. From the opening scenes on the slave island, photographed with emotional intensity, to the well manicured South Carolina plantations, to the grubby Harlem streets, the film makes an important cinematic statement about cultural inequities past and present.