Little Senegal

| August 29, 2011

Little Senegal is a bold and stunning tale directed by Academy-Award nominee Rachid Bouchareb, about Alloune (Sotigui Kouyate), an elderly African museum tour guide, researching his genealogy in hopes to find his relatives that were taken from his village as slaves to the United States during the 1800’s. Although released in France in 2001, Little Senegal is very relevant in 2011.
The film begins with French dialogue and English subtitles as Alloune explains to an audience how African slaves were bound by heavy chains and shackles. Alloune continues by showing illustrations of rebellious slaves who were hung by their waists (instead of their necks) which lead to a slower, more dramatic death, a tactic used by slavemasters to deter other slaves from upheaval. With years of book and folk knowledge of slave life, Alloune is naïve to the perils of modern life in the New World.
Alloune travels to Little Senegal of Harlem, New York, and meets his frustrated nephew, Hassan (Karim Koussein Traore), a cab driver. Hassan admonishes Alloune that searching for his African-American relative is fruitless because, “African-Americans think Africans are too black” and “are monkeys”. Hassan introduces Alloune to his live-in African girlfriend, Biram (Adia Diarra), explaining that cohabitation is the American way to pay costly living expenses. Biram is taking English classes secretly but is treated like a love slave by Hassan. In one scene, Alloune walks in on Hassan beating Biram with a belt and must pull Hassan off her.
Alloune also meets Hassan’s guy roommate, Karim. Karim is planning to enter a paper marriage with an African-American female cab dispatcher, Amaralis (Adetora Makinde), for citizenship. The film shows the tensions between Karim (Roschdy Zem) and Amaralis (Adetoro Makinde) as they mix business (marriage in exchange for money) with pleasure (having intimate sexual relations).
Alloune quickly discovers hostile American race relations. First, Alloune observes that yellow taxicabs will not stop for blacks. Second, Alloune watches night after night television news stories of police brutality against blacks. Third, Hassan’s apartment is robbed of everything, coincidentally after Alloune brings an African-American guest over to visit.
Alloune meets and becomes fond of his long lost relative, Ida (Sharon Hope), an older woman faced with seeing her pregnant granddaughter, Eileen (Malaaika Lacario), ruined by the mean streets of New York. Ida lives in a deteriorating brownstone and earns a meager living from her small business, Robinson’s Candy Store. She hires Alloune to be a security guard for her store, but one may wonder if she is buying companionship. Ida is indifferent towards Alloune’s prodding that she learn more about her ancestry, declaring, “I just want to know what I’m going to buy myself for dinner”. When Alloune asserts that Ida would never be alone in Africa, Ida retorts, “If things were better in Africa, you probably wouldn’t be over here”.
In the end, Alloune voyages back to Africa to properly bury Hassan, who is found dead after a fatal confrontation with African-Americans. Ida is no longer physically alone now that she has both her granddaughter and great-granddaughter to care for. Karim starts over with Amaralis, promising more than a paper marriage.
There is nothing shallow about Little Senegal. It keenly explodes with pain, tragedy and sorrow. Engaging and thoughtful, the film confronts several ‘elephants in the room’ such as racism, prejudice, bias, abuse of every kind, stigma, disparity, and injustice, to name only a few. Little Senegal leaves much food for thought, and it may take a day or so to come down from its intellectual high.

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An attorney residing in NYC serving the film and digital media community.
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