Ousmane Sembène is likely the most well-known African director in the Western world, in part because the usual object of his critical eye in his popular early films is the project of the West, and therefore that part of his cinema is recognizable to these filmgoers. If we [of Western nations] are disarmed by the novel shapes and colors of the people and places of Sembène’s Senegal, we are at least anchored by the small, familiar relics of European colonialism and Western capitalism that regularly serve as its antagonistic forces. We need not understand the diverse behaviors or beliefs at work in African cultures, nor the socioeconomic hierarchies or power dynamics of the continent’s internal politics. We need only recognize our own society as the omnipresent villain.
It could be said that Sembène’s stature in European and American cinema scholarship, then, insofar as any African director holds any degree of prominence in those studies, is ironically at least partly attributable to a Eurocentrism that reinforces the idea that stories about predominantly white colonial nations—even those in which they perform an oppositional role—is of a higher priority or greater relevance than what might, in crude terms, be called a pure African cinema. This is obviously no fault of Sembène’s, whose early films like Black Girl (1966), about a Senegalese woman who becomes destructively alienated after accepting a position in France as a nanny for a wealthy white family, provide the crucial perspectives of people under the torment of colonial and post-colonial programs.
It’s only an observation on the latent racism of an intellectual community that chooses to frame non-Western stories still concerned with the impact of Western society as more serious, important, or intelligent than those which might not focalize it—or even ignore it completely. To be sure, during the ’60s, Sembène played a pivotal role in putting cinema as an engine of creative and technological development in African hands, and his critiques of colonial interests through his filmmaking are invaluable. However, African films exclusively about African concerns and beliefs and conceived through quintessentially African aesthetics (including Sembène’s later films) are preciously rare in the Western canon.
Sembène was doubtlessly aware of this conundrum, and he was at least sensitive to the need for a more self-dependent African cinema. His Mandabi (1968)—the first film made entirely in an African language (Wolof, in this case)—is one of the best examples of how this dissonance manifested in his work. It is a complex product of the director’s effort to reconcile his European influences with the desire to craft a truly African sensibility as a filmmaker. Unlike Black Girl, a film about the individualized African experience set within a broader Western cultural context, Mandabi zigzags through Senegal’s villages, ricochets between its disparate institutions, and unravels its post-colonial entanglements in sequences that center African people, places, and experiences at every step. It makes the foreign economic imperialism of Africa its subject, but it doesn’t foreground that world; this is a film strictly concerned with the material impact of convoluted institutional control by an estranged, unseen colonial culture, seen exclusively through the eyes of an individual contending, often unwittingly, with its ramifications.
Mandabi is a vibrant political satire about the intricacies of economics and national identity in post-colonial Senegal. Its unlikely hero is Ibrahima Dieng (Makuredia Guey), unemployed with two wives and seven children, who suddenly comes into possession of a substantial money order from his nephew Abdou (Mussa Diuf), who emigrated to Paris to work as a streetcleaner. The film’s narrative (and humor) unfolds in the inherited post-colonial bureaucratic entropy that persistently thwarts Ibrahima’s attempts to convert the order into usable currency, blockaded at every turn by the archaic, confounding, and parasitic rule systems of European capitalism.
This stasis plays out in a number of comedic sequences that show in microcosm how African resources have been abstracted away from African ownership and control over time. These resources are supposedly owed to a colonial power for the privilege of their oversight and are made available to Africans only once they submit themselves to the imperial system that looms over them. At the post office, Ibrahima attempts to cash the money order only to be told he needs an identity card. at the police precinct to apply for one, he’s told he needs his birth certificate, three photos, and a 50-cent stamp. At city hall to get a birth certificate, he discovers that because he does not know his exact date of birth, he must enlist the aid of a “person-of-influence” (i.e., someone with ready access to capital) to move him forward.
Ibrahima’s neighbors, meanwhile, hear the rumors of his sudden influx of money and begin to encroach upon his affairs for the possibility of sharing in his modest wealth. “You know people,” one of his wives remarks. “You mention money and they all come running.”
For those more familiar with European cinema, one way to conceptualize the idea of Mandabi is to look at it in comparison with L’Argent (1983), Robert Bresson‘s film that tracks the exchange of a counterfeit 500-franc note. In Bresson’s film, middle-class business owners pass a forged bill onto a laborer, who is arrested when he tries to spend it. Mandabi, likewise, is about the movement of debt—its own kind of pseudo-currency—and the social implications for those who hold it, as well as the perception of wealth and, ultimately, who is granted the benefit of the doubt in projecting that perception.
Both films teach us that criminal or indecent behavior among one class is wholly expected and even admirable within another and that these iniquities are self-perpetuating because capital produces more capital and debt generates more debt. Both films spiral out from individual concerns to make judgments on a macroeconomic scale, illustrating how only working people ever have to face the consequences of failures in upper-class institutions.
Where Mandabi separates itself, though, is in extending beyond class essentialism, exploring how class hierarchy within post-colonial societies informs and distorts other questions of identity. The fiscal irony of the story’s conflict is straightforward enough: Ibrahima can’t access his own money unless he has access to more. But it’s what he’s paying for—essentially, an officialized identity (designed by the French) to replace his own, and a right to exist within the eyes of the same government holding his money hostage—that illustrates the subtle insidiousness of colonial power.
The project of colonialism, like that of capitalism, is about growth, or acquisition and consumption: acquisition in the taking, consumption in the razing, the pillaging, the extraction, and the appropriation, all used to enrich a distant and absent empire and its agents. One such agent is Ibrihima’s nephew M’baye (Farba Sar), who turns out to be another swindling bureaucrat who takes advantage of him. Here, Sembène shows that the true danger of capitalism is that it turns temptation to power into a key component of its machinery; to embrace it is to thrive, but to refuse it is to languish at the bottom.
On the surface, Mandabi appears to target the values of Senegal specifically—Ibrahima is always obstructed, scammed, and harassed by either his African neighbors or institutions with a Senegalese face—but they cannot be set apart from the influence of centuries of European imperialism in which colonial missionaries have evangelized its own value systems. Sembène is deft in hinting at the origins of the ideologies that frustrate his characters because he has no interest in dismantling the economic or political principles of faraway nations (insofar as they don’t impede on those of his own country, at least). Rather, he shows how those principles have mutated to fit the models of African culture.
For Ibrahima, being coerced into obedience with the formalized identity of the state means abandoning his individuality. In a way, the character is derived from that family of comedic archetypes of childlike adults who represent the simple pleasures of spontaneity, leisure, and whimsy. At the beginning of the film, he is something of a paragon of easygoing living; we see him eating a meal his wives prepared, napping, and having his legs massaged. In the first shot of the film, he receives a shave: a simple act of personal maintenance, of personal agency, to craft his own external identity. Soon after, he’s propelled by capital into the strictly regimented worlds of governmental bureaucracy and foreign banking.
Mandabi is almost an inversion of the classic fish-out-of-water comedy in which the stuffy straight man is forced into an unfamiliar environment and eventually learns to embrace an open-minded, carefree lifestyle. Ibrahima, in contrast, is coerced from a life of simplicity and harmony to fall in line with deceptive, competitive, and confusing structures where comfortable, casual human relationships are replaced with reactionary behaviors and transactional entitlements. Supportive communities are supplanted by a commercial environment in which everyone is simultaneously debtor and creditor to their friends and neighbors.
This is the uniqueness of Mandabi as a cultural product: a film that emerged from the stark cultural shock of imperial conquest, as opposed to the hegemonic filmmaking we’re used to, of a culture already inundated by the hierarchical ideologies of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and Judeo-Christian superiority. These are Western society’s absurd priorities, Sembène tells us, decontextualized from our multi-generational complacency with them for the sake of comedy. Mandabi allows us to see them with untainted eyes.
But Mandabi is first and foremost an African film, reflecting the fear that Africa, long ago stolen and resold, can never be recovered. Too many of its resources have been expended, too many of its people scattered, so much of its culture devoured and its potential robbed and used to fund its own exploitation in a cycle of coercively fabricated debits and credits. It provides an illustration of the subtlest ways post-colonial communities are forced to contend with and adapt to unfamiliar complex organizational apparatuses imposed upon them even after the more explicitly violent work of colonialism has subsided.
A more liberational, unadulterated African cinema would come in its time, but for Sembène early in his career, it was impossible to remove the imprint of colonialism from the Africa he knew.
After a 2019 restoration that recovered the film from obscurity, the Criterion Collection brought Mandabi to Blu-ray in what will hopefully signal a broader move toward making more revolutionary African cinema accessible to global audiences. Special features sweeten the package of a largely unseen Sembène classic. They include an introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo in which he places the film in context as a continuation of the themes and political project of Sembène’s first features. There is a discussion between writer Boubacar Boris Diop and sociologist/activist Marie Angélique Savané about Sembène’s background and the socioeconomic conditions in which he wrote and made films.
Sembène’s short film Tauw (1970), also set in Dakar, and a new program called Praise Song featuring interview outtakes from Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary Sembène! (2015) are provided. Additionally, the director’s original 1966 novella is presented in a new edition as a booklet, translated by Clive Wake, along with a fantastically enlightening essay by critic Tiana Reid, which tackles Sembène’s struggle to reconcile his literature with his cinematic language, and the role both played in his political mission.