Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “Sugar Cane Alley” (1983)

by on May 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed May 18th at 7:00 & Sun May 22nd at 1:00 at MoMA [Program & Tix]
MoMA kicks off its Euzhan Palcy retrospective with Sugar Cane Alley, the then 25 year-old filmmaker’s directorial debut. Sugar won a 1984 César for Best First Work and earned a Silver Lion at Venice for Darling Legitimus’ performance.

Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley sneaks up on you with what at first seems to be its artlessness, as if it were a tale being told by someone too shy to look you directly in the eye. There is, however, something so dependably right about its choices of images, events and actors that you eventually realize that what initially seemed to be artlessness is a conscious style. It’s neither mock-primitive nor sophisticated, but a style thoroughly at the service of its narrative, which is a deceptively gentle – almost polite – tale about growing up black, poor, proud and fiercely ambitious on the French West Indian island of Martinique in the early 1930’s.
Sugar Cane Alley, which was one of the hits at the [1984] New Directors/New Films Festival, is Miss Palcy’s first feature, a film debut that could be as important as any in the festival’s 13 years of existence…[New Directors/New Films] is not always an unmitigated joy. The people responsible for choosing the programs often seem to be dedicated as much to social anthropology as to cinema. This results in long hours of viewing well-meaning but dreary movies about alien cultures, overdeveloped as well as underdeveloped, works more remarkable for having been made at all than for anything they might demonstrate of a particular new talent.
The landscape of Sugar Cane Alley is no more or less exotic than the Wales seen in How Green Was My Valley or The Corn Is Green, films that it recalls though it is decidedly different. I might even say that it’s better than either of those studio-made films, not because its locations are authentic but because its passions are more raw and less cinematically genteel.


Jesse Ataide for DVD Verdict:

It would have been easy for Palcy to focus on Jose’s struggle to get an education, and his grandmother’s quiet willpower that allows him to achieve that goal. But she takes a different approach, weaving this central story into a rich tapestry teeming with colorful characters and minor plotlines, demonstrating that this is one single story running parallel and interacting with numerous others. This sets up Sugar Cane Alley as a film depicting the struggles of society in general, and not an exhilarating story of a protagonist who beats the odds against crippling circumstances.
It’s particularly admirable how steadfastly Palcy refuses to pander to the audience or play up the emotional elements of the film. Material dealing with oppressed people is emotionally-charged stuff, but she never exploits this. Tragic circumstances and painful deaths occur frequently throughout the film, yet they are never artificially dwelt upon. She treats each situation with dignity and respect, but never plays up certain elements that would cause an emotional response, essentially allowing the viewer to come to their own decision on the ramifications of each individual circumstance.


More from Ataide on the color design:

Sugar Cane Alley is beautifully photographed in muted tones; an attempt to recapture the tattered elegance of ancient photographs while bringing their images to vivid life. The browns and deep purples have a haunting quality in the night scenes, as if casting a perpetual shadow of sadness over the entire proceedings, while in contrast, the blinding yellows of the day scenes highlight the dusty and stifling qualities of the Caribbean sun that beats relentlessly on the tired workers’ backs. The color scheme of the film does much to enhance the power and resonance of the story, underlining both the positive and negative qualities of the way of life portrayed throughout the film.

Robert Spuhler for DVD Talk:

This could have very easily descended into the depths of melodrama and, in the hands of a less capable director, probably would have been so sentimental that the story would be lost. But by relating to the setting (Palcy is a Martinique native), she is able to be incredibly truthful about Jose’s life, keeping it specific to him and not just generally about the impoverished.

Kevin B Lee has a video essay on the film:

Janet Maslin for the New York Times:

Euzhan Palcy brings so much warmth to her film Sugar Cane Alley that even a funeral scene midway through has an unexpected sweetness. Set in Martinique in 1931, Sugar Cane Alley explores the lives of black plantation workers through the eyes of a quiet, perceptive 11-year-old orphan. More than the story of how Jose, who is played beautifully by Garry Cadenat, makes his way out of the shantytown of the title to become a brilliant student and, perhaps later, a writer, Sugar Cane Alley is the story of an entire way of life. In describing it, Miss Palcy chooses her details sparingly and well…Slowly but carefully, Miss Palcy creates a sense of the time, the place, the traditions and the state of racial relations in the shantytown of the title.

And we know WHAT YOU REALLY WANNNNT. A ten-minute Palcy mash-up scored to DMX:

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