Martinique, in the early 1930s. Young José and his grandmother live in a small village. Nearly everyone works cutting cane and barely earning a living. The overseer can fine a worker for the smallest infraction. The way to advance is to do well in school. José studies hard and succeeds in an exam allowing him to attend school in the capital. With only a partial scholarship, the tuition is very costly. José and his grandmother move to Fort-de-France to make José's studies easier...Written by
Martinique, early 1930s: José (Garry Cadenat) is an orphaned, 11-year-old boy who lives with his maternal grandmother, M'Man Tine (Darling Légitimus), in a modest home. They live in a shanty town in which the black adults (descendants of slaves) work in exploitative conditions cutting sugar-cane for white, French plantation owners. M'Man Tine is determined that José get a good education in order to avoid a fate similar to hers. "Sugar Cane Alley" is based on the autobiographical novel by Joseph Zobel.
When the opening credits include beautiful music and splendid vintage photos, it's fair to guess that a great film is to follow. Luckily, this guess is right.
Director/writer Euzhan Palcy shows exceptional skill in this fine film especially considering it is her first! She is very adept at creating mood, a true sign of a great director. Emotions are felt throughout the film but not with any sudden punches - more with a steady stream that gradually builds. The best examples are the scenes involving groups of mischievous children as we observe them acting out during their rare moments of freedom and the terrible guilt that follows the mischief. The naivete and vulnerability of the children is easily felt during those scenes.
The rich story also contributes to the greatness of this film. Like many other stories about racism and classism, terrible things happen. But just as the viewer expects more tragedy, it unexpectedly does not happen. Similarly, unexpected good things happen, too. The narrative also displays one of the more insidious results of racism when combined with classism. This is shown via who are further up in the social hierarchy (and those who aspire as such) looking down contemptuously at other.
The two main characters are fascinating enough yet others in smaller roles are at least as intriguing. The standouts include Medouze (Douta Seck): a wise, intense, grandfather-like figure who mentors José during his childhood; and Léopold (Laurent St-Cyr): a mixed-race boy whose white father is the owner of the plantation. Léopold lives with inner-conflict: his parents forbid him from befriending other children in school because of their race and class which would leave him with no playmates. Along with other conflicts and mixed messages, his characterization leaves the viewer curious to see a parallel story focusing on him alone - yet another sign of the wealth of this great story. - dbamateurcritic
RATING: 9 out of 10
Directing by Euzhan Palcy
Screenplay by Euzhan Palcy (based on the book by Joseph Zobel)
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