“Woman, Thou Art Loosed” and “Moolaade”
A Bleak Heroism of Images
“Whatever its form, subject or content, artistic expression stems from a lived and shared social reality.”
—Ousmane Sembene, “Commentary,” Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema
Kimberly Elise has been featured in Set It Off (1996), Beloved (1998), John Q (2002), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and Woman, Thou Art Loosed. I first saw her in the film based on Toni Morrison’s novel of slavery and escape, Beloved. Elise played Denver, a girl whose loneliness has made her both loyal to and suspicious of her mother, wary toward strangers but welcoming when arrives another young woman, who may be the ghost of her dead sister or an amnesiac victim of slavery. Elise seemed capable of intimacy with the camera, an attribute always attractive and useful but especially in a film whose story some find difficult to access. I recently had a conversation with a young African-American woman about the film Beloved, and she found it impenetrable; and she mentioned not liking—and not understanding who was thinking or talking in—Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. I commented that I thought black people used to be more able to handle complex and difficult experiences, citing the blues as another referent, and the woman I was speaking to said that they handled them because they had to; and I wondered what that might mean for the future—for the appreciation of artistic work already done and yet to be done. Kimberly Elise, who considers Beloved a high point in her career thus far, studied at the American Film Institute after getting a communications degree from the University of Minnesota. Elise was the smart but pushed-to-her-limits mother of a sick child in John Q, in which she co-starred with Denzel Washington as the father who takes a hospital staff hostage to gain care for his son. Elise was a government agent disguised as a waitress in The Manchurian Candidate. Now in Woman, Thou Art Loosed, she is a young woman whose childhood of sexual abuse and emotional neglect has lead to sexual exploitation (stripping, prostitution), jail, and violence.
The film Woman, Thou Art Loosed is directed by Michael Schultz, and was written by Stan Foster based on a book by a religious minister, T.D. Jakes, who is also featured in the film. The film is better than I imagined it would be; it is an intense experience, offering insight, drama, and even moments of suspense and comedy. The cast includes Michael Boatman as a childhood friend who has not outgrown his infatuation, Debbi Morgan as a family friend who tries to be supportive, Clifton Powell as an abusive stepfather, and Loretta Devine as a well-intentioned but thoroughly disappointing mother whose unwillingness to believe in her daughter leads to much trouble. The cast does very good work. My most severe criticism has to do with the look of the film, which seems murky (the cinematographer is Reinhart Peschke); and I don’t know if the look was determined by budget limitations, inattention, or even design. (I have learned that the film was initially planned as a straight-to-video production; and Elise has been quoted in an interview as saying the film was shot in only twelve days.) Michael Schultz previously directed Car Wash, Which Way is Up? and Greased Lightning (two Richard Pryor films), Carbon Copy (starring Denzel), Krush Groove, The Last Dragon, and The Great American Sex Scandal. Woman, Thou Art Loosed is as much a film by T.D. Jakes, who has conducted his ministry through popular books, television appearances, and recordings, as well as from the pulpit. Jakes, whose southwest Dallas church boasts 28,000 members, was inspired to address sexual abuse after women came to him for counseling.
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday described the film as being “propelled as it is by the painful realities of so many African American lives and by the unapologetic belief that they can be overcome only by spiritual surrender. Jakes’s ministry has been especially geared toward women, and this is very much a woman’s picture, both in the old-school sense of highly pitched, Lifetime-style melodrama and in its cast of formidable actresses, all of whom deliver powerful performances” (October 1, 2004). In Film Journal International’s October 2004 issue, Doris Toumarkine wrote, “Woman, Thou Art Loosed is the kind of good work that deserves audiences that care about same.” The Catholic News Service’s David DiCerto wrote, “Lifting its title from the verse in the Gospel of Luke where Christ cures a crippled woman, the grace-filled film speaks to the brokenness in each of us, and manages to maintain a tenor that is both unflinchingly raw and edifyingly hopeful, avoiding, for the most part, any slushy sentimentality.”
The film, which moves back and forth between the present and past, establishing relationships and the familial and social roots of personal chaos, begins with a church service featuring T.D. Jakes preaching on his god’s being able to save “even me,” with his refrain being “heal me, Lord.” Kimberly Elise as Michelle Jordan enters the church. Elise takes out a gun and shoots someone. Then, we see a little girl playing, performing the playground rhyme “Little Sally Walker,” and pointing to someone she loves best (he’ll grow up to be the character played by Michael Boatman). That childhood memory is followed by the minister Jakes entering a jail corridor and being heckled by women in the various cells before stepping in to visit with Elise’s Michelle; and he asks her about her hunger strike. She says she’s not on a hunger strike, but is fasting; and she says that the inner state is important. She had requested the minister’s visit but hadn’t expected him to come. Apparently, she had received an early release from a previous three-year jail sentence because of the minister’s intervention, a release in which church attendance, a tracking monitor attached to one of her legs, a halfway house, and regular visits with a parole officer were part of her parole requirements. We then see, in a memory, Loretta Devine as Cassie getting flowers at her door from a well-dressed man, Reggie (Clifton Powell) who is taking her out to a nice restaurant. The two had met in the unemployment office and he borrows money from her to cover the meal until his check arrives. (I’m not sure that it’s ever said what either’s regular form of employment is.) Reggie has, soon after he arrives, when Michelle’s mother has left the room, a conversation with young Michelle about her body’s future development. It’s inappropriate as he is a stranger, and though his comments are almost clinical rather than vulgar it’s scary talk and she moves away from him, and her babysitter arrives, Twana, played by Debbi Morgan, and puts her arms around Michelle. Twana says in one of the monologs addressed to the camera, to the watching viewer, that she suspected Reggie for a snake the first time she saw him. (These monologs by various characters emphasize individual perspectives; these are the words of witnesses and of antagonists; and they make it impossible to miss what the film is about—even as one tries to evaluate the practical restraint on what people can do to help others in trouble: why couldn’t they, or didn’t they, do more? As with the minister’s prison conversation with Michelle, these monologs are part of the form, part of the skeleton, of the film.)
Michelle, freshly paroled after her first jail sentence, takes a walk near the family home; and she says that the devil lives there in a two-frame bungalow. An old friend, Todd, a nice and respectful man played by Michael Boatman, sees her and they talk. Michelle has a somewhat masculine style developed in prison—plain, direct, and assertive. She describes the house as where a part of her is buried, an observation both overtly writerly and also the truth of her spirit: and it’s often the case that people who suddenly discover the importance of eloquence and truth tend to be very expressive and precise. (We hear a car radio program about the vulnerability of women, with an announcement of the religious revival that Jakes is presiding over.) Michelle sees Nicole, played by Idalis DeLeon, when she arrives at the halfway house, a childhood friend who grew up to become involved in drugs and crime and lost her family because of that involvement. They renew their friendship. This meeting may seem too coincidental to some, but the awful thing about being black and in trouble in America is that one recognizes more of the people one knows at the bottom than in the rise to the top. The two women go together to a beauty salon where Debbi Morgan’s Twana works, and after Michelle says, “You remember Nicole?” Twana says, “Sure do,” and hands her own purse to a co-worker, saying, “Girl, go hide my purse.” (Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” with the lines “love will make you do right, love will make you do wrong, love will make you come home early, will make you stay out all night long” is on the soundtrack.) Twana helps Michelle get her dress and hair together for the revival, which Michelle attends, though she rejects the offer of a Bible. (Is she only at the revival because it is required; or does she only want the living word, not the printed word?) Boatman’s character Todd is one of the people there. He tells her, “I don’t really drink coffee but I’ll have some hot water with you if you’ll let me.” Michelle and her mother Cassie meet after the service but Cassie goes off with Reggie, with whom Cassie fights about their long unmarried state and his decade-long unemployment. Next is a return to the past, to the scene of the original crime, when Reggie comes home to Cassie’s place drunk while Michelle is playing with a doll, and rapes the girl. “Crap was destined to wind up on my plate,” says Michelle in her jail cell; and Jakes replies, “Isn’t that why people wash the dishes?” That’s not Shakespeare (or Ralph Ellison), but I have to say that while seeing the movie and taking notes as I sometimes do when I think I may write something about a film, I was aware of the fact that much of what was occurring in the film—the emotional intensity, the social turmoil, the cultural depth—was not making it into my notes: there was a complexity that was evolving that went beyond the words spoken, and that went beyond the usual concerns of entertainment.
Early in her conversation with the minister, Michelle had described her childhood as “black,” explaining, for example, that she called her mother by her first name and her grandmother mama. In discussing black film and black experience Gladstone L. Yearwood declared,
In our paradigm, black film is located within the black experience and the black cultural tradition. The tradition conditions the decisions we make about what we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we dance, the way we walk, the way we talk, and the artistic expressions we create. Whether we wish to acknowledge that there is a cultural milieu surrounding important aspects of the lives of all African Americans is beside the point. An examination of cultural manifestations such as religion or music, for example, reveals the existence of a sociocultural and historical experience that in critical ways impacts on the lives of blacks. This tradition encompasses the individual but may be described as having an existence independent of any one person, because it functions very much like language. We don’t create it, but we are born into it and live it. We use it to negotiate our day-to-day living. Some blacks deny the relevance of the African American cultural experience to their lives, but their denial does not erase historical fact.” (Black Film as a Signifying Practice, Africa World Press, 2000; 119)
There can be a rigidity about how “blackness” is defined—who is black, who is not black enough—and that rigidity indicates something about the limitations of blackness: if some people find it too strangling an identity to maintain; and if other people can be easily excommunicated from it because of their choices or pursuits, how natural, how fundamental, is it? The film reminds me of how forceful black personalities can be, but these are forces put to little use in American society—they’re used for entertainment, both music and sports, and for moral outrage in politics and religion, but what else? Watching the film, I found myself wondering about Michelle’s relationship to school, to books and other forms of culture (paintings, film, music, and dance). What might Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Toni Bambara’s The Salt Eaters have meant to her, two stories in which women move from frailty to personal power? Or even Alice Walker’s The Color Purple or Toni Morrison’s Paradise? Did Michelle not ever read anything that addressed her experience? Did she not ever meet anyone who acknowledged having the same experience? The only forms of community we see are located in church, in the halfway house, and in the hair salon, with the last being the warmest, the most intimate: and yet none directly addresses Michelle’s hurt or need. If Michelle is as alone as the film suggests, what are the positive uses of blackness for her? In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a book that focuses on several black girls and their families, a book that Kimberly Elise has said is a favorite of hers, one of the girls, Pecola, wonders what love is, and what you have to do to be loved. Pecola decides that the secret to happiness is having blue eyes, and imagines, after neglect and her father’s sexual abuse of her (she is made pregnant by him), that she has blue eyes: she goes crazy. There was, for her, no resource in blackness.
Both Woman, Thou Art Loosed and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade concern women who have been hurt by their communities (and may be again), but in the first film there seems to be more of the self and/or spirit of the central character at risk than in the second. Although the people in Woman, Thou Art Loosed have more material things than those in Moolaade, the dignity of the people in Moolaade’s African village seems irreducible (it may be easier to see dignity in people one is less familiar with: I vaguely recall a writer—possibly it was Auden decades ago—saying that he was on a New York train and the most noble faces seemed to belong to black Americans).
In Woman, Thou Art Loosed Todd and Michelle go to a restaurant to eat, and she eats very quickly, probably a holdover from incarceration. One of her old drug associates enters and tries to give her drugs and Todd says he’s a police officer in the narcotics division and the man leaves. Todd tells Michelle that her record doesn’t matter. I thought he was telling her that her worth is not equivalent to the worse thing that has happened to her, that her worth is greater than her pain or her mistakes; and that he had wisely answered a great, unasked question, a question sometimes asked in fear, guilt, and shame. Michelle angrily tells him she doesn’t want his or anyone’s sanctimonious acceptance; she is not settling for easy comfort—and that is predictable in someone who has been deeply hurt. We see that when she was raped, her mother came home, saw the mess of her daughter’s room and even her bloody dress and her daughter crying in the closet and still did not believe the child’s saying that Reggie had raped her—and yet Cassie has a large knife out when Reggie comes home to ask him about the charge, which he denies.
Cassie speaks to the camera, saying that when she grew up if something bad happened to you, the attitude was that you should just move on—and that she had been sexually molested by her own father and her mother had told her that there was “no sense in hating your daddy.” We all have crosses to bear, Cassie says, before talking about her loneliness and stating that she didn’t choose between a man and her child, she chose her own needs above both of them. I had never been an admirer of Loretta Devine; and I find her performance here both believable and horrifying. In the October 1, 2004 New York Times Dave Kehr, who wrote that Woman, Thou Art Loosed renewed an important African-American tradition, the film as revivalist sermon, and called it Michael Schultz’s finest movie, said of Devine’s performance: “Ms. Devine, with her sweet, girlish voice, is usually cast as a lovable pixie in films like What Women Want but here she reveals an impressive range, bringing out both Cassie’s vulnerability and callousness. She is a lonely, desperate woman who knowingly holds on to a bad man because life has offered her no other opportunities. Her soft figure and large, wondering eyes make a fine, dramatic contrast to Ms. Elise’s angularity and burning gaze.”
Michelle’s old pimp, Pervis, visits her at the halfway house, threatening her to get her to come back to him, and when she refuses (she, confidently and sincerely, tries to explain to him that she is choosing another kind of life, talking to him as if he were capable of understanding, a sign of her attempting to treat someone with the respect she wants for herself); and he hits her, she hits him back, then he begins to beat her, and Nicole comes out of the house and hits him hard over the head, knocking him unconscious. (Pervis—is that name intended to echo the word perverse?)
Michelle confronts her mother about Reggie’s childhood molestation of her (her mother refers to Michelle’s statements as old lies). T.D. Jakes’ sermon mentions the “get-over-it generation,” and says that after difficult experiences “get over it” is what people are told, and he asks, “Do you know what it’s like to go through something and can’t get over it?” Then, we see the minister telling Michelle that the warden has petitioned the governor for a stay of execution, the sentence for Michelle’s killing a man.
We see Reggie, who is shown at a drug party smoking crack, holding the pipe as if it were a mother’s breast about to be withdrawn and he was a baby who did not know if he would ever be fed again. (The movement between past and present does not seem fragmented as one watches the film; there’s logic between the scenes—involving cause and effect and also the connection of themes. It will soon be clear why the film moves from mentioning Michelle’s death sentence to showing us some of Reggie’s habits to introducing guns into the scenario.) Reggie’s chased from the drug party—with gunshots—and he soon tells Cassie that he’s been smoking dope and has seen other women but he’s ready to change, to give himself to her god. Cassie asks then if he had molested Michelle—and he denies it, lying believably. After the attack by the pimp from the past, Pervis, Nicole has put a gun under Michelle’s pillow. When the pimp accosts them one day on a walk, Michelle begins to retrieve the gun from her purse until she sees a policeman and waves and speaks a “good day” to the policeman, intimidating Pervis. In the hair salon, Todd comes for Michelle and they walk outside, where his daughter is playing “Little Sally Walker,” as Michelle had early in the film. Todd’s daughter points to him as the one she loves the best; and he seems inclined to be a good parent, to not only provide love and shelter, but also protection, encouragement, and support. The innocence Michelle had—and the capacity for love and sensuality she had once—and the damage, and the loss, suffered are suggested.
“Children we have not borne/bedevil us by becoming/themselves/painfully sharp and unavoidable/like a needle in our flesh,” wrote Audre Lorde in the poem “To My Daughter the Junkie On A Train” (Collected Poems, Norton, 1997). The poem describes the narrator coming home on the subway from a PTA meeting, and seeing a drug addict nodding on the train, a girl who is the “nightmare/of all sleeping mothers.” The narrator describes her own concern as corrupt, saying she has her own addictions, not necessarily chemical, but offers “my help, one eye/out/for my own station.” The drug addict laughs, and women in the subway avert their eyes “as the other mothers who became useless/curse their children who became junk.”
In jail, Elise’s Michelle completes the model house she has been building throughout her conversation with the minister, the conversation that has lead to these various memories we’ve seen (while the building of the model indicates time’s passage). The minister compliments Michelle on her talent and she says, “Never confuse a talent with a skill—a skill can be learned.”
The last memory we are shown takes us back to the beginning of the film. Michelle gets dressed for the revival, and a woman parole officer, intelligent and cynical, arrives at the halfway house, but hearing Michelle’s intentions about her life, does not detain her; and Michelle enters the church. She has planned to leave her childhood’s bloody dress at the altar as the symbol of how the past has held her back—and, Reggie who has been in the audience goes up as part of his own spiritual experience, sees her and walks toward her asking forgiveness: and she says, “No,” and takes the gun out of her purse and shoots him.
Reggie speaks to the camera (dead man talking); and he says he has faults like the next man, says he just needed more time to straighten himself and his life out. (Clifton Powell’s performance as Reggie is convincing throughout; and he manages to be perceptibly human despite monstrous acts. “Both male and female characters are trapped in the cycle of predatory self-destructiveness that, as Jonathan Demme helpfully interpreted Beloved, is the ongoing legacy of slavery,” wrote Armond White October 1, 2004 about the film on the web page of Africana.com, also known as AOL’s Black Voices; although what I thought what was interesting about the film was that in it whites are not blamed for Reggie’s transgressions: and that one of the reasons the personalities in Woman, Thou Are Loosed seem more complicated—deeper, truer to life, wilder—than blacks in many films is that their agency—the motivating energy and responsibility in their lives—isn’t assumed or shown to come from or through white people. Clifton Powell as Reggie—presumptuous, lewd, drunk, lying, drugged, scared, repentant—may be a great performance. It’s an achievement for both the actor and the film that Reggie’s death seems both just and regrettable.)
“You can never really get even,” concludes Michelle, speaking to the minister. “What I did was wrong…Tell my mother I forgive her…Pray for me,” she says. Elise projects an unexpected calm here, in a performance in which she has been warm, skeptical, focused, disturbed, curious, surprised, charmed, irritated, resolved, and devastated. Elise, who wrote short stories and plays while a girl before becoming interested in acting, and who has identified Cicely Tyson as one of her heroes (for the integrity of Tyson’s performance choices), has said that the role was an opportunity for her to give face and body and voice to millions of people who have been silenced by molestation. Hers is a dynamic and truthful performance in a film in which shadows are more powerful than light.
Frank Scheck in the October 8, 2004 Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Michael Schultz (Car Wash, Cooley High) is not able to lift the proceedings beyond melodrama, but he succeeds in imbuing the film with dramatic urgency and has elicited powerful performances from the cast. Particularly fine are Elise, who provides her character with a highly realistic blend of vulnerability and toughness, and Devine, who brings complex shadings to a character that might have been reduced to stereotype. As for Jakes, he’s more than convincing playing himself, and this screen appearance provides ample demonstration of the reasons for his growing popularity.” David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor’s October 1, 2004 issue wrote, “The screenplay is overwrought at times, but the acting is superb by any standard.” The October 1, 2004 Dallas Morning News (Tom Sime) described Jakes as “tender and quiet, and it’s easy to believe in the redemption that his palpable sweetness offers Michelle. Their scenes together have a riveting intimacy, and Christian or otherwise, it’s impossible not to be moved.” I was surprised that Jakes’ sermons were not alienating even to me, a lapsed Catholic (I’ve lapsed thoroughly into atheism). While I understand the use that can be made of church—for community, and ethical values—I still recall the church’s long brutal, even immoral, history. That history includes the abduction of Native American children then reared away from their families and traditions, and the blessing of slave ships. It includes the execution of scientists and freethinkers for heresy and women as witches and homosexuals for sodomy, and the waging of religious wars. That history makes religion merely one more flawed human attempt at meaning, order, and purpose. Jakes’ sermons are justified as advice and commentary by the fact that they address genuine emotional and social problems with honesty and compassion. The film justifies itself with the power of the emotions it presents, its dramatization of unpleasant familial and social truths—and the small possibility of hope. What is that hope? It is less in Jakes’ sermons than it is in Michelle’s intelligence: even on death row, she is still trying to learn from life and to accept reality.
Ousmane Sembene’s films are not only art; they are confrontations with realities.
Ousmane Sembene’s films include Borom Saret (1963), Black Girl (1966), The Money Order (1968), Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1993), and Faat Kine (2000). His Moolaade is a film of beauty, and it focuses on conflicts between tradition and modernity, men and women, and religious and secular values.
Moolaade was presented at the Cannes film festival in 2004, with the Senegalese first lady in attendance; and the film received the festival’s Un Certain Regard prize. Ousmane Sembene, now considered a master of film, was born in 1923 in southern Senegal in modest circumstances, was expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, and worked from 1938 to 1944 as a mechanic and bricklayer. He served active duty in World War II on behalf of France, and after the war in 1946 he joined a union and saw that activity become part of his country’s political struggles. Ousmane Sembene migrated to France in 1947 to live and work; and he continued his union activities, which accelerated his political and intellectual growth, as he began to attend seminars and workshops (on Marxism), and pursue culture, exploring museums and theaters. Richard Wright, John Dos Pasos, Pablo Neruda, and Hemingway were among his influences, according to a scholar of his work, Samba Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College. Ousmane Sembene published his first poem in 1956 at thirty-three in Marseilles. He published the first of several novels in 1956, The Black Docker. He returned to Senegal upon its independence from France in 1960, and became interested in making films to be able to reach illiterate people, and made the short film Borom Saret in 1963. Ousmane Sembene has been quoted as saying that the Africa of the past fascinates him but the Africa of the future excites him.
Moolaade, written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, depicts what happens when a group of young girls run away from a purification ritual, in which their clitorises are cut, and seek refuge with a village woman who forbade years before the cutting of her own daughter. About thirty-eight of about fifty African countries practice the custom of female genital circumcision. The Senegalese director told Professor Samba Gadjigo in an April 11, 2004 interview, accessed online October 26, 2004, on Marxmail.org, that the film is intended to show “the heroism in daily life. One finds nowadays war is rampant in Africa, especially south of the Sahara. There’s also our life; life continues, after all, with our daily actions that are forgotten by the masses.”
The film begins outside, with a view of green plains, a large tree, and piles of wood, as a man on a bike with cargo for sale, such as bread, clothing, carpets, pails, and other household goods, is followed by a group of kids. The light is bright, and the tree casts a large shadow near where the man, a former soldier, who is called mercenaire (mercenary), sets up his outdoor store. There is a rather strange butter-colored building nearby and a large anthill; and later we’ll learn that the first is a mosque and the second marks the gravesite of a man who transgressed the village’s values—and both, the institution of moral belief and the defiance of moral rules, are important. (This is a village, Djerisso, in Burkina Faso, selected after Ousmane Sembene looked at possible film sites in Mali, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau.)
We see a boy climb inside a little hut to get eggs to hand to a woman, and a woman bathing a child, before a group of four girls run into the compound, a clutter of simple buildings in which a man with several wives and their children lives. The four girls have run away from the purification rites; and drumming is heard conveying the news that six missing people are being looked for. Meanwhile, a man is saying goodbye to his first wife (he has several); he is apparently going away on a kind of business trip. Mother Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the man’s second wife—he’ll later call her his favorite, is asked by the girls for protection, moolaade. Her daughter says, “Do not deny them.” Colle puts a red, yellow, and dark (brown or black) rope across the bottom of the compound’s door, a sign that the compound has been declared a sanctuary. She tells the girls that they must not cross the line without permission, and that she cannot make them cross it until the time of moolaade is over, after they have tried to follow her daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) out to the traveling seller, from whom she is going to get bread and radio batteries. While talking with the mercenaire (Dominique Zeida), who tries to sweet-talk her before she says that mercenaires are untrustworthy, that they kill people and participate in coup de tat. He notes that she’s been paying attention to the broadcast media. As she makes her way back home, she encounters village elders, men, and kneels before them, and she is asked to participate in the welcoming ceremony for the village leader’s son. The men, one in a blue and yellow gown, the other garbed in purple and blue, are going to the makeshift store to get batteries for a radio boom box. Speaking, one of them calls the trouble over purification a minor domestic issue—and the film will show that it is neither minor nor purely domestic but of significance to the entire village.
Amasatou returns home with visions of things she saw that she wants to buy, but Colle refuses and Amasatou goes to her father’s first wife, whom she also calls Mom and asks for the new purchases, which would include something new to wear when the chief’s son returns. Together the first wife, who is seen as presiding over the others, and Colle’s daughter go to the seller and get things (clothing, carpet, pails) on credit, charged to the chief’s son, whom the girl is expected to marry.
A group of women in red, the women who perform the cutting rites, the Salindana, visit the compound now housing the refugee girls with Colle, who has called moolaade a matter of life and death; and the red-robed women do not cross the roped door. The lead Salindana woman, the dean, says that she has performed the rite on Colle and other women there, cutting and sewing. Colle says that when she was pregnant with her last daughter, the doctor had to perform a cesarean section as a remedy for that cutting and sewing so her child could be born, and that Colle buried two children, which she attributes to the rites. Rebuked, the Salindana leader says she has to neutralize Colle’s power, before the group in red goes to look for the two missing girls (only four of six being with Colle). After the Salindana leave, Colle, and the other women in her compound, with the girls, dance: it is a very celebratory dance.
A man walks through a green plain under a bright sky, a male relative (reading the subtitles, I wasn’t sure if he was Colle’s brother, or young brother-in-law, or even son); and he talks to the first wife and says he wants the refugee girls returned. (Colle and the first wife will argue later about his visit and viewpoint.)
Meanwhile, the Salindana have returned to their place in the forest, where a group of girls are—one is weeping, in pain, as she cannot urinate and one of the women is advised to remove the blocking clot with butter. The other girls are asked to jump and chant in a circle (which seemed, to me, a cheery form of torture after such an operation). It’s assumed that the two girls who have remained missing have escaped to the city. The women in red discuss Colle’s refusal of the rites; and they want to meet with the village’s chief to destroy Colle’s power. Colle’s power is not official but it is formidable, the power of example, of individual conscience, sympathy, and social critique.
The Salindana talk with the village’s leaders about Colle’s granting the girls refuge, her dissent from the established ritual. One of the leaders tells a story about a former village dignitary who defied the moolaade, the granting of sanctuary, and was buried where the anthill has since grown (the anthill is a bad sign). He mentions that the mosque was built with the coming of Islam, which they connect with both the purification ritual and with moolaade. “This hedgehog-like mosque in the middle of the village, its unique architecture in the sub-Saharan region, this architecture wasn’t inspired by outside influences, we owe it to the termite ants, to the anthills, the symbol of Moolaade,” said Ousmane Sembene to his interviewer, Professor Samba Gadjigo in April 2004, when explaining why he chose to film in Burkina Faso’s Djerisso. (I have seen also the name spelled Djerissa.) About half of the population in Burkina Faso is Muslim, and almost half practice indigenous (animist) beliefs, with only about ten percent Christian. The country of Burkina Faso is north of Ghana in western Africa, a country of flat plains and warm winters and wet summers, formerly known as Upper Volta, and it won its independence from France in 1960. It is a country of forty-five provinces, governed by a legal system based on French civil and customary laws. With a population of about thirteen and a half million people (of more than sixty ethnic groups), only about thirty-seven percent of the men are literate and only seventeen percent of the women. Most of the people are involved in cultivating agriculture for survival, and the average life expectancy for both genders is no more than about forty-six years. Some of the ethnic groups, such as the Bobo and Mossi, are known for their masks; the Lobi are known for their wood carvings; and the country hosts what many consider Africa’s largest market for crafts. (The country is also known for its production of sweet potatoes and sorghum.) The name Burkina Faso means place of the incorruptible people, and the country’s natural resources include marble, copper, nickel, bauxite, lead, and silver; but Burkina Faso is known as one of the world’s poorest countries. The capital, Ouagadougou (also spelled Wagadugu), has modern buildings and large avenues, but we do not see it in Moolaade. Instead we see the small, round adobe buildings that, with the constant presence of animals and some insects suggesting closeness to nature, could lead one to suppose the people lead a simple life. However, the story being told is an ageless story of individual conscience against public power; and so it is about unpredictable passion, threatening terror, and—what is possible: and this is not a simple story at all.
In Moolaade, the village leaders call an uncut woman bilakoro (and the ritual may be termed purification because one of the usual results is to decrease sexual response, though this is not explicitly said in the film). There is talk about taking the girls and Colle’s daughter, who is becoming a young woman, and cutting them all. The male leaders acknowledge that a husband can order his wife to end moolaade; and then the Salindana women are told they can leave while the men make a decision about what to do.
Women in red appear in the doorway of Colle’s family compound; and the children see them as wearing frightening traditional masks, possibly a memory of the ritual from which they fled. Colle’s husband’s older brother visits and begins talking to his brother’s first wife, who tells him that Colle should be there when they talk about her; and they go inside. Elsewhere an old white Mitsubishi truck arrives, with the children shouting, “Here he is,” and it is the village chief’s son returning from France. He is a handsome young cosmopolitan African, and is wearing a suit and tie. The women of the village of various ages are dressed in fine traditional garb, elaborate, full of color and style, to greet him. He is welcomed by a man and a woman who sing his praises (they seem to be griots, village historians and entertainers); and he gives them money—and both the greeting and the gift seem a ritual. Cloth is put down on the ground for him to walk. The father and son, the chief and his probable heir, hug, and then the mother and son hug, before the son greets the other village elders.
In Colle’s compound, her daughter asks why she wasn’t cut, saying that if she had been she could have given the young man the welcoming water upon his return. (Instead, a pretty, eleven year-old girl was asked to do this, a “purified” girl whom we will learn is being prepared for marriage to the returning son.) Colle’s daughter, Amasatou, tears up her photograph of the young man in Paris after Colle explains her cesarean birth and the difficulties that follow genital cutting.
There is wailing and it is announced that the two missing girls have thrown themselves in the water well. It’s immediately said that the well will be filled the next day, and when it’s done there’s a brief ritual with two water jugs and two mats being placed over the well. Men talk and say that their wives shouldn’t listen to the radio, that they’re introduced to rebellious ideas through it. The men will begin to confiscate the women’s radios and leave them in a pile in the center of the village.
Colle’s husband Cire returns and is told of the trouble, and asks his first wife why he allowed Colle to offer the girls sanctuary and when alone with Colle tells her she is his favorite wife but has now gone over her own head and shit on his. He tells her that he wants her to end the moolaade; and that he does not want to hear the radio. The elder wife warns Colle against ending the moolaade. Colle sees that other women agree with her but do not want to take a public stand; and she calls herself the sacrificial lamb. We see an excision ceremony interwoven with sex between Colle and her husband (she bites her little finger to prevent herself from screaming). The next morning Colle bathes, attended by her daughter then by the first wife, and she looks at her torn finger.
The chief’s cosmopolitan son, who is thanked for buying the village a water pump, presumably to replace the filled-in well, and for helping the village in times of past trouble, is asked to turn off his radio and not to use his television. He’s told then that he has been betrothed to his cousin, an eleven year-old girl, but he says that his marriage is his own business, which makes his father angry and his father threatens disinheritance. What can disinheritance mean when the father asks his son to pay his debts with the mercenaire? The son sees that his father and the others have been charged too much for what they’ve bought, but the mercenaire cites his own expenses and the nature of global capitalism. (A man buys blue shoes, possibly sneakers, for his young son from the mercenaire, and the little boy looks admiringly at the black dress shoes of the cosmopolitan man: endless desire, endless profit.)
Colle weaves, and a nearby girl plays with a large turtle, while children pound grain; and the cosmopolitan son visits Colle’s family. He quietly admits he wants to marry Amasatou and agrees to redeem the credit for the things she and the first wife bought. (He’ll balk when he goes to the mercenaire and gets the tally, but pays. When he tells the mercenaire about his family’s intention that he marry his eleven year-old cousin, the mercenaire says that he, his father, and uncle are pedophiles. When the young man has gone away, the mercenaire says, “Africa is a real bitch.”)
Women talk about what’s going on with the men in the village—the ban of radios; and one of the women says, “Our men want to lock up our minds.” To which another says, “But how do you lock up something invisible?” (That question has always enraged tyrants, who then decide that the simplest way to still the mind is to cut off the thinking head.) Later women gather near the new partially enclosed water pump, unable to sleep. It seems early morning (a lovely scene: the women are near a tree, mostly seated, and there’s some light in the sky, not a lot, and a large shadow on the ground and in the distance one can see the green of the trees. It is one moment in time that is obviously about to become another—sunrise, or sunset. The film’s cinematographer is Dominique Gentil, the production designer is Joseph Kpobly, and the editor is Abdellatif Raiss). “We bought those radios, didn’t we?” one woman says. Some of them begin to shower as a man atop a mosque begins a call. Colle’s husband tells her, in front of his older brother, that he wouldn’t have married her if she hadn’t been cut; and his older brother defines genital cutting as part of their tradition. The Salindana women come to speak with Colle and she goes out. Her husband is told by his elder brother that Cire is laughed at in the village as he cannot control his wife—and the elder brother leaves a whip with Cire, who says he has never beaten a woman, nor even his daughter. Colle is at the meeting of the Salindana and village elders when her husband comes and whips her in front of all, telling her to speak the word to end the moolaade. “Don’t say it,” many of the women yell. “Tame her,” some of the men say. The village seems divided mostly, but not entirely, along the lines of gender (I was reminded of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie, in which something similar occurs between black and white Americans, two choruses with differing consciences). Colle is whipped near to falling and the mercenaire steps in to stop the beating (he says he can’t stand violence, an irony coming from someone who had been a soldier). “After all this beating, not a word—unprecedented,” says one of the village leaders. The mercenaire, who we have seen trying to seduce various women (and called a womanizer by some of them—they are no fools), is accused of corrupting the wives and daughters of the village. His intervention in the public whipping—in which he shows that not all men agree with indiscriminate use of power over women—might be seen as another aspect of “corruption,” of changing perceptions. He is told by the men that they want him out of the village, but he doesn’t try to leave until they come at night after him with their faces masked, carrying torches and weapons. As her own wounds are being tended, Colle learns that one of the refugee girls was taken by her mother while Colle was being whipped, that the girl was taken, cut, and died; and that the mercenaire was killed in the night. Colle, having survived her ordeal, orders moolaade ended; and the rope in front of the compound is undone. Women visit Colle with food gifts; and a mat is unrolled for them to sit. They have come to get their daughters and claim they felt Colle’s pain while she was being whipped. The woman who took her child from Colle’s compound grieves that she held her crying, bleeding, dying daughter in her arms (we see a flashback of her luring her daughter out and carrying the protesting girl to the red-robed Salindana women). The grieving mother is given a baby to take care of for life by one of the other mothers.
The men assemble, and begin to set fire to the radios. The women emerge and say no one will be cut again. The woman who has been given a baby lifts the child high and says the child will not be cut. Women returning to the village with wood see the radios burning. The Salindana women come—and are called child-killers—and are made to give up their red-handled knives, really crude, cruel looking knives. Colle says that Islam doesn’t require genital cutting (and that she heard this on the radio), that women visit Mecca and are not cut. The women give out a triumphant cry. Colle’s husband begins to go to her and his brother calls to him, but Cire turns and says, “It takes more than a pair of balls to be a man.”
It may be important to note that in both Moolaade and Woman, Thou Are Loosed, the men who are good—caring, intelligent, useful—are not typical in the world in which they live: in the former, the mercenaire is a visitor, and the chief’s son is a returning expatriate, and in the latter, the minister has an exalted role in the community and the childhood friend Todd would be seen by many as just a bit boring, as too decent, too logical, too observant of social rules: their being unusual, and good, compels one to see the other men more critically.
Near the end of Moolaade, Colle’s daughter walks toward the prince, who gets up to meet her, and his father tries to restrain him and the son says, “The era of the little tyrants is over.” Colle’s daughter tells the young man that she hasn’t been cut and she won’t be cut. The last shot in the film is of an antenna, a symbol of modernity, of technology, money, and international communication.Ousmane Sembene’s films are part of the present and the future.
“Cinema and television can convey all the dreams and ambitions of our people. The fruits to come will be more beautiful, more succulent than in the past,” Ousmane Sembene said in his Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema commentary (ed. June Givanni, British Film Institute, 2000; 186). In the same book, Ferid Boughedir described themes found in African cinema(s), such as conflicts between town and village, the westernized African woman and traditional African woman, modern versus traditional medicine, and traditional culture-bearing art and commercial art. He went on to summarize themes observed by a French critic, Guy Hennebelle. Those themes include the struggle against colonialism, the growing pains or childhood sicknesses of independence, disillusionment with the African middle-class, rural exodus, the status of African women, classical artistic form versus innovative forms, and concern for regional languages. Boughedir looks at various tendencies—films that present political interpretations, or that celebrate traditional cultural forms—and various genres, such as comedies, melodramas, and mythic stories that can seem to gratify a European desire for an easy escape. Ousmane Sembene has called Moolaade his most African film.
Stephen Zacks, author of the essay “The Theoretical Construction of African Cinema,” identifies the primary frameworks for thinking about African film as neo-Marxist, neo-structuralist, and modernist; and says that the tendency to define an African film tradition is confining, reducing, and often leaves one’s view of African cinema less rich than it might be. He thinks that there should be less concern with authenticity or essentialism, and looks forward to an Africanist discourse which will have such authority that it will not need to define itself as African (African Cinema, ed. Kenneth W. Harrow, Africa World Press, 1999). In Olivier Barlet’s African Cinemas, from Zed Books (published in Paris, 1996, and in London and New York, 2000), Barlet writes about developing a criticism of African film that acknowledges the subjectivity of responses and locates the film’s need to exist for the filmmaker and his world.
It is easy to see the need for the existence of both Moolaade and Woman, Thou Art Loosed: women are hurt by violent actions and communal silence; and the films give voice and vision to their experiences. In Moolaade, the importance of having a resource for knowledge other than what men will tell you—the resource of conversation among women and of news of the world given through television and radio—is also a theme. With knowledge, one no longer has to make choices in ignorance and, at best, one can make different choices.
“Writer and director Ousmane Sembene has been called ‘the father of African cinema’ and at 81, he is at the peak of his powers. With a smooth storytelling style, he choreographs Colle’s heroism as a force field that sends waves of change out to the community,” wrote Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Health, in a review accessed online October 18, 2004. Ousmane Sembene, the co-founder of both the Senegalese Association of Film Makers, and the Pan-African Federation of Film Makers, has said that he considers the people of Africa his audience, though he welcomes the international market. His work has been honored at various festivals, and saluted by critics. A.O. Scott, who described Moolaade as “an opportunity to experience the embracing, affirming, world-changing potential of humanist cinema at its finest” in his October 13, 2004 New York Times review, also wrote, “The movie encompasses horror and heartbreak without sacrificing its basic, tough-minded optimism. It also dramatizes, with a kind of clarity I have rarely seen on film, how a society can change from within, how even well-intentioned authority can become cruel and corrupt, and above all, how a single, stubborn act of reflexive resistance can alter the shape of the world.”
Woman, Thou Art Loose and Moolaade demonstrate how important the individual can be, by showing what happens when the individual is cared for and respected, and what happens when she is not. There is nothing in recent memory quite like the exaltation of the women in Moolaade, a film of flawless performances, when the women make it known that they will no longer allow themselves or their daughters to be cut in the name of a false purity.