"Black Orpheus"
“Black Orpheus”

The 2016 edition of the Cannes Film Festival (considered the most prestigious film festival in the world) kicks off tomorrow, May 11, as the annual early conversation about what film will win the coveted Palme d’Or this year – the festival’s top prize – dominating film blogs.

As I’ve come to expect every year, overall African/Diaspora participation at this year’s event is almost insignificant; I skipped my yearly predictions post of films that might screen during the festival’s 2015 edition, because, in part, there just wasn’t a lot to choose from that would qualify, given what we’ve come to expect from the invitation-only, highly-selective and most publicized film festival on earth. I’m sadly never really expecting to find more than 1 or 2 “black films” (shorts and features written and directed by, as well as starring people of African descent) in the festival’s full lineup – in competition, out of competition, etc – which only reemphasizes the very necessary role that black film festivals around the globe, play. The majority of the films we cover on this blog would likely never participate on the film festival circuit, if it weren’t for black film festivals. Granted, only a few of those films would be able to compete on the grandest cinema stage of all, but even those titles sometimes are overlooked, if only in favor of the familiar (to the various selection committees).

But instead of dwelling on the current state of things, what I did think would be a good educational idea, is to look at past films of the diaspora that have won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s globally-celebrated grand prize.

In the 69 annual installments since the festival was officially founded in the late 1930s, films that tell stories about people of African descent have been sadly underrepresented when it comes to the Palme d’Or specially.

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.

Unfortunately, they aren’t all readily available or accessible, but, as you’ll see below, for each title, I highlight what your screening options are, to assist.

Without further ado, here they are, in chronological order, starting with the earliest win…

1 – The first 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 film is loosely based on Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek mythology, with Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 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; however, those who own the a copy will know just how bare it was: 1 disc with virtually no extra features; just an extended cut of the film.

Maybe realizing their “error,” the Criterion group released a new and improved “Black Orpheus” on DVD (and Blu-Ray), loaded with several items that should both edify and entertain. The most recent “Black Orpheus” Criterion Collection release, comes with 2 discs (unlike its predecessor), with special features that include, a new, restored high-definition digital transfer, archival interviews with director Marcel Camus and star actress Marpessa Dawn; new video interviews with film critics Robert Stam, Gary Giddins, and Brazilian journalist Ruy Castro; a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, and its legacy, titled, “A la recherche d’Orfeu negro;” a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, and a little more.

The DVD set, released in 2010, is available for purchase on Amazon.com; while the 1-disc Blu-Ray (which comes with the same extra features) can be purchased there as well.

It’s also available as a VOD streaming rental, on Amazon, and if you have a Hulu Plus account, you can stream it there as well.

So you have a few options.

As an aside, it was in the summer of 2010 when Tony Award-winning choreographer and director, Bill T. Jones’ (“Fela!”), announced that he planned to bring “Black Orpheus” to the Broadway stage as a musical. Many could immediately picture a stage musical based on the film – itself a harmonic piece of cinema history, with the Brazil carnival as a backdrop; it made, and still makes sense.

No word on whether Jones still plans to adapt.

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

"Chronicle of the Years of Fire"
“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,” a 1975 Algerian film directed by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina. It wasn’t his first Cannes selection, and wouldn’t be his last. However it was the only one to win 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 much 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,” is said to have been quite an expensive undertaking, especially 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 the head of the jury, may have impressed on other jury members France’s guilt over its colonization of Algeria.

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 commentary to counter any of the criticism, or praise of the film.

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.

"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 all 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 simple and even unceremonious photography of DP Dick Pope, you just might feel like you’re watching a docu-drama.

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.

The film 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 director Mike Leigh (who is white, by the way) 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, for quite a few years, the film was 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. As recently as a year ago, Amazon.com had it listed on DVD, but it was only available via resellers, meaning you would have being paying a premium for it.  It doesn’t appear that this has changed much. It’s still available via Amazon, on DVD, but still at premium prices (as you can see in the ad immediately above).

It’s on Blu-ray, but only in the UK. And it’s not streaming on Netflix.

Something needs to be done about all that!

Here’s a short trailer:

That’s it! Three films 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, which will kick off its 2016 edition tomorrow, May 11.

I should note that, 3 years ago, French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche won the award for his lesbian romance “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” 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.

Again, this is a list of films that tell stories that center primarily on people of African descent, no matter where the director is from. But even if I also included films directed by filmmakers of African descent that don’t tell stories about people of African descent, this would still be a very, very short list. In fact, Kechiche might be the only other addition.

By the way, the film Kechiche made before “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” “Venus Noire” (“Black Venus”), on Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, otherwise derogatorily known as the Hottentot Venus, can be found on home video.

I suppose I should also mention 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. But it’s really the teacher’s story that’s central to the narrative, not the mostly black kids that make up his students.

Interestingly, the author, Bégaudeau, stars in the film as a version of himself. It concentrates on him as he tries to keep order in his ethnically-diverse class, while trying to educate them.

But both films are available on DVD.

In a later post, likely tomorrow, when the festival starts, I’ll take a look at “black films” that are set to screen at Cannes this year.