by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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Little Senegal is a film about a reverse genealogy search that finds a man in Senegal longing for his family members who might have been sold into slavery, sent to America, and never to be heard from again.
Alloune, played by Sotigui Kouyate, works as a slave museum tour guide at the site where ships left Senegal for the United States, but with each American tourist he yearns to find his relatives. One day, he leaves Africa and travels to North Carolina, as he knows that this is one stop on the slave trade from Africa to America. He is a very intelligent man, as he really knows how to inquire about slave families bought and sold in the Carolinas. He finally figures out that he has family living in Harlem—and he is in for a culture shock.
Robinson is the family name that Alloune has been able to trace from the slavemaster to the slaves being given that as their family surname. He discovers that this particular Robinson family sold about 35 acres of land in North Carolina at some point in the mid-20th century and moved to Harlem. Alloune finds a nephew named Hassan (who drives a cab and has other black-market ventures). With Hassan’s help, Alloune tracks down Ida Robinson, a woman filled with attitude and pride who owns a little sidewalk store. Alloue sweet talks her into hiring him as a helper and security guard against the sidewalk thugs. She admits that she doesn’t like or trust Africans, and that there is nothing in Africa that would be even remotely interesting to her. The two become close—almost romantically.
Ida has a granddaughter who has been living on the streets, and who one day turns up unexpectedly, ashamed and pregnant. She has been estranged from her grandmother, and Alloune is shocked by all the disrespect and discontent that he observes between the two generations. He sets out to rectify the situation, as well as help his American cousins rediscover the African pride that they have lost.
While Africans who landed in America or migrated on their own later and Blacks born in America share the same blood lines, there is a difference in how they treat one another. And Alloune also finds out that the two groups aren’t as close as he thinks they should be. In fact, one scene shows Hassan, while working as a car mechanic, being denigrated by an African-American customer, who even asks him to show him his tail. Little Senegal is a movie that reveals how cultural differences and Western influences have allowed the two groups to grow apart from one another.
Shot in the Senegalese community of Harlem, Little Senegal shows life in New York’s projects and touches on themes of racism and discrimination between African Americans and their native African cousins.
Never released in the United States, Little Senegal was an official selection to the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000 and received numerous Jury Prizes for Best Film and Best Actor. Little Senegal is available on DVD and digital platforms August 30 from Cinema Libre. Visit www.cinemalibrestudio.com for more information.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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