Sugar Cane Alley (1983): Euzhan Palcy’s Tale of a Boy and his Grandmother in Martinique of the 1930s

(French title: La Rue Cases-Nègres)

Directed by Euzhan Palcy, Sugar Cane Alley is a socially-aware tale, set in Martinique in the 1930s, where blacks working sugarcane fields are treated harshly by their white employers.

It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Zobel of the same name, or, alternatively titled Black Shack Alley.

José, a young boy living in a rural part of Martinique, lives with his grandmother, Ma’Tine, who works in the sugar cane fields where they are browbeaten and badly paid by the white boss.

An orphan, Jose has a father figure in the elderly Medouze who tells him stories about Africa.  His grandmother, who does not want him to end up working in the fields, insists that he goes to school.

At school, José befriends a mulatto boy named Léopold, but Léopold’s white father does not want him to associate with field workers. The father gets kicked by a horse, leading to his death. On his deathbed, he refuses to acknowledge Léopold as his son–a mulatto should not carry the family name.

José wins a partial scholarship to attend high school in the capital, Fort-de-France. His grandmother accompanies him there, working as a laundrywoman for the rich white households.

When he writes an essay on the lives of poor blacks and is accused of plagiarism, he runs away from school. The professor, realizing Jose was wrongly accused, apologizes and offers full scholarship.

José returns to Black Shack Alley when his grandmother suffers a heart attack, and when she dies, he needs to face an uncertain future by himself.

The film swept the César Awards (the French Oscar), and won four awards at the 40th Venice Film Fest., including the Silver Lion. The actress, Darling Légitimus, then 76, won the Prize of Best Actress (Gold Lion).

The film won also the Venice Fest Unicef Award and the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual (OCIC) award.