"Black Orpheus"
‘Black Orpheus’

The 2017 Cannes Film Festival kicked off this year’s festivities on May 17th, as conversations over what film will win the coveted Palme d’Or – the festival’s top prize – begin.

In the 70 annual installments since the festival was officially founded in the late 1930s, films that tell stories about people of African descent have been sadly almost entirely absent from participation (in competition notably), with the occasional selection now and then. And this year’s event continues on with that, shall we say, *tradition*.

Reasons for this abound, but I’m not interested in addressing that particular topic here and now, although we’ve touched on the matter in previous posts.

Instead, what I’d like to draw your attention to are those African/diaspora films that have won the festival’s top honor – the Palme d’Or for in-competition films.

As you’d expect, it’s a very short list. But consider it an FYI; essentially, films that I encourage you to seek out, if you haven’t already seen them. Although, unfortunately, they aren’t all readily accessible, and as you’ll see below, for each title, I highlight what your screening options are to assist.

Without further ado, here they are, all 3 of them (yup, that’s all) in chronological order, starting with the earliest win…

1 – The first African/diaspora film to win the Palme d’Or was Marcel Camus’ 1959 classic “Black Orpheus” (also winner of the 1960 Academy Award for best foreign-language film). The picture is loosely based on Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek mythology, with Rio de Janeiro during Carnival season as the backdrop. Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice, as her ex-lover, disguised as the Angel of Death, shows up and kills Eurydice. To reclaim his lost love, Orpheus enters “Hell” (the Rio morgue in the film) and uses supernatural methods to revive the dead girl.

A multi-award winner on the international film scene, “Black Orpheus” features a samba musical score by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Its notable soundtrack is credited for single-handedly introducing the Bossa Nova to the rest of the world.

It’s a fresh, colorful, atmospheric, and infectious take on an old tale.

In 1999, it was honored with the Criterion Collection treatment; it is now on DVD and Blu-Ray, loaded with several extras that should both edify and entertain. It’s also available as a VOD streaming rental, on Amazon and iTunes.

So you have a few options.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the film (the final minutes):

'Chronicle of the Years of Fire' (1975)
‘Chronicle of the Years of Fire’

2 – The only film on this list that I have yet to see, “Chronicle of the Years of Fire” is a 1975 Algerian film directed by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina. It wasn’t his first Cannes selection, and wouldn’t be his last. And it won the Palme d’Or.Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal classic “Battle Of Algiers,” an engrossing account of Algeria’s war for independence from the French, “Chronicle of the Years of Fire” also tackles the Algerian war of independence (a common theme in Algerian cinema over the years – specifically the relationship between the country and its former colonial power, France). Although, unlike Pontecorvo’s film which places the audience right on the front-lines of the war, Lakhdar-Hamina’s said to be quieter drama depicts the war as seen through the eyes of a peasant.

Clocking in at almost 3 hours long, “Chronicle of the Years of Fire” was considered quite an expensive undertaking for Algerian cinema at the time. From the research I did, it doesn’t appear to have been very well received by critics who attended the festival, with one even suggesting that it won the Palme d’Or that year because French actress Jeanne Moreau, who was head of the jury, may have impressed on other jury members France’s guilt over its colonization of Algeria.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last time that politics influenced decisions at the festival.

Reviews range from “indulgently long and exceptionally hard to follow,” to “an epic sweep of national history, from World War II to the outbreak of Algerian rebellion against the French.”

Again, this is a film I’ve yet to see, in part because it’s not readily accessible on home video, so I can’t offer any informed commentary to counter any of the criticism, or praise of the film.

However, I did find it in its entirety on YouTube. It’s not my preferred way to watch a film like this, but, given the absence of other means, I just might have to.

I should also note that in addition to winning the Palme d’Or prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, it was selected as the Algerian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 48th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.

If you’d like check it out on YouTube, you can do so below:

'Secrets And Lies'
‘Secrets And Lies’

3 – Mike Leigh’s tangled family drama classic, “Secrets And Lies” won the 1996 Palme d’Or. It stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as young black optometrist who, following the death of her adoptive parents, decides to track down her biological mother, whom she later discovers is a white woman. Add in the utter chaos that is the family life of the mother, and you’ve got much fodder for drama.

As with almost any Mike Leigh work, it’s a strong, very well acted film, thanks in large part to Leigh’s methods. He started without a script – just an idea; found the actors he wanted to work with (all of them revered), and, collectively, they essentially work-shopped the project, coming up with the story, and writing the screenplay during several lengthy rehearsal periods that lasted months. What results are some very believable performances, since, in effect, the actors helped create the characters. And combined with the unceremonious photography of DP Dick Pope, you just might feel like you’re watching a documentary.

Brenda Blethyn’s performance as Cynthia, the white mother, won her Best Actress at Cannes.

As for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, this was really her first major role, which helped her gain international recognition. For her performance in the film, she received Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and was the first black British actress to be nominated for an Academy Award.

In total, the film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but won none.

It did receive some criticism for not directly tackling race matters. I suppose some wanted more depictions of racial intolerance in the film. And while race is certainly front and center early in it, eventually it becomes less important to the overall narrative, which is really about family.

When asked to address this, here’s what Mike Leigh had to say in an interview:

I think that’s a complex thing. I think it [race] remains very important [through the film] — and here we are talking about what the film is saying. However subtly, it continues to be an issue. The audience would inevitably begin by meeting Hortense and immediately classifying her as a black person — this is what racism is about. As you get to know her, you simply forget that she’s black because you get to know her and it ceases to be an issue. Now that’s what happens to the characters. When it comes to the crunch, on the whole, the thing that worries anybody least is the fact that she’s black. Again the idiots in some quarters have come out waving their flags and saying “Well, it shirks its responsibility and why aren’t they intolerant towards her, why didn’t they behave negatively” — as though everybody would be racist in the world, which is not the case in 1996. I know, and this is built into the structure of the film, that a lot of people make the assumption that she is going to be reacted to in a racist way. But finally, we make what is a very unequivocal political statement which is: “We are all people.” It seems incredibly obvious to say that in 1996. It’s not a very sophisticated a thing to say, and maybe it’s sort of a wishy-washy liberal thing to say, but actually that is what it’s all about. That, actually, other things transcend this and that is as it should be. In that sense, you could argue that I am presenting something as I think it should be. That’s how they should behave.

Surprisingly, the film is actually not easy to get one’s hands on. I would think that it would have received the Criterion Collection treatment by now, but it hasn’t. I checked Amazon.com, and while it’s available on DVD and blu-ray, both are coded Region 2 , which means they will not play on most DVD/blu-ray players sold in the U.S. So unless you have a region-free player (if you live in the US), you likely won’t be able to watch the film. If anyone is aware of its availability on some other widely accessible format, please share.

Here’s a short trailer:

That’s it! Three that tell stories that center on people of African descent that have won the coveted Palme d’Or, the highest honor awarded to the best film in competition at the annual Cannes Film Festival.
I should note that French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche won the award for “Blue Is The Warmest Color” 4 years ago, however I didn’t include it on this list because the story the film tells doesn’t center on characters of African descent, even though the filmmaker is of African descent.

Also worth mentioning is Orson Welles’ “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice,” which won the Palme d’Or in 1952, although the title character was played by Orson Welles himself, in *black face*. So I didn’t include that for what should be obvious reasons.

There was also Laurent Cantet’s 2008 French drama, “The Class,” which was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by French writer François Bégaudeau. It’s essentially an account of Bégaudeau’s experiences (he’s white) as a literature teacher in an inner city middle school in Paris (mostly black kids). But it’s really the teacher’s story that’s central to the narrative.

This year’s festival is also lacking in terms of films about people of African descent, so don’t expect any announcement of a Palme d’Or win on this blog when the trophy winners are eventually announced. The festival runs through May 28.

Till then…