I, a Black Man

English Title: I, a Black Man

Original Title: Moi, un noir

Country of Origin: France

Studio: Les Films de la Pléiade

Director: Jean Rouch

Producer(s): Pierre Braunberger

Screenplay: Jean Rouch

Cinematographer: Jean Rouch

Editor: Catherine Dourgnan, Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte

Runtime: 70 minutes

Genre: Biography, Anthropology, Documentary

Language: French

Starring/Cast: Gambi ., Karidjo Faoudou , Oumarou Ganda , Alassane Maïga , Petit Touré

Year: 1958

Volume: African / Nigerian

Moi, un noir (I, a Black Man) is a modern, urban film with post-synchronized voice-over narration (i.e. no dialogue or other diegetic sound is heard) set in Africa during the last decade of French colonisation. Shot on location, mostly in the Treichville ghetto of Abidjan (Ivory Coast), it focuses on young migrant workers from Niger, particularly Oumarou Ganda, who rename themselves after Western cinema actors and characters and black boxing stars as a way of getting used to what Steven Ungar (2007: 112) has called a ‘“new” Africa’.

Indeed, while forging make-believe identities and attempting to erase their real origins, Tarzan, Dorothy Lamour, Eddie Constantine (also known as US Federal Agent Lemmy Caution) and Edward G. Robinson (also known as boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, fantasising about being Lamour’s husband) recount their joys and pains. Ganda/‘Robinson’ narrates the film, is its visual centrepiece and asks some of its most pertinent questions, such as: ‘[what] the hell are we doing here in the Ivory Coast?’ In short, Moi, un noir foregrounds role-play and fantasy interwoven with the real, lived experiences of migration, poverty, xenophobia and disillusionment during the period when African nations were soon to gain independence.

I would suggest that Moi, un noir asks and answers the question ‘what is Africa in the 1950s?’ In so doing, it avoids rehearsing the 1920s-1950s preposterous old European models or metaphors for questioning Africa’s so-called social pathologies, abnormal conflicts and lack of history and achievements (Mudimbe 1988: 194). Instead, Rouch is a white French man and former employee of the French colonial administration who grasps that Africans’ numerous differences, problems and varied experiences transcend their commonalities and search for solidarity. Rouch’s awareness emerges from the foundations of his filmmaking method. These bases are: the first conventional documentary, and ethnographic film, Nanook of the North (1915); Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s method (to edit a film as it is shot) and idea that the camera fuses with the filmmaker to record non-objective reality; and Rouch’s contact with ‘various [...] colonial projects’ and ‘black art’ in the form of Louis Armstrong’s jazz or Josephine Baker dances (Bâ 2010: 229-230).

Thus, to categorise Rouch or Moi, un noir is a complicated issue. For example, the late Ousmane Sembène, known for his opposition to colonial cinema and an African cinema made by non Africans, but also for his scathing critiques of Rouch, liked and defended Moi, un noir nonetheless.  Sembène’s complicated position has to do with how Moi, un noir critiques European colonisation. For example, Oumarou Ganda (Edward G. Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson), a French army veteran of the Indochina war, is now reduced to abject poverty because of a lack of post military-service care from the French state and his migrancy within a poor, economically-unstable ‘French’ West Africa in transition. As a result, Ganda’s life has become contrapuntal to those of white French expatriates now living in Abidjan, and Rouch’s camera captures this discrepancy well when Ganda tells Faoudou (Petit Jules) about his army days and present condition while these expatriates are seen enjoying expensive nautical sports. Simultaneously, however, Rouch does not endorse or advocate political commitment. More to the point, his deliberate attempt to empower Ganda and the other protagonists of Moi, un noir is both a blessing and a curse. This is because in the 1950s Moi, un noir’s was a model that African filmmakers could emulate but, as a film, it also raises two fundamental questions that the reader/theorist/critic may want to explore: firstly, how much power could Rouch actually transfer to his protagonists, if at all? Secondly, how much freedom did Ganda and other protagonists actually have in Moi, un noir?

One of Moi, un noir’s strengths is the way in which its characters are conceived: within each, Rouch creates new metaphors. For example, when Ganda (G. Robinson/Ray Robinson) asks ‘what the hell are we doing here in the Ivory Coast?’ or when he adopts a French army veteran’s perspective vis-à-vis the Indochinese/Vietnamese, one may wonder on whose behalf he is speaking and what about. Stated differently, Ganda’s essence is in his appearance as G. Robinson/Ray Robinson /a French army veteran which, simultaneously, intertwines with Ganda as a poor economic migrant in Treichville. In terms of characterisation, it would also be useful to know that the screen and boxing icons whose names Rouch uses were metaphors already: actor Edward G.’s real name was Emmanuel Goldenberg (a Romanian immigrant to America) while Sugar Ray’s was Walter Smith.

Rouch’s deliberate attempt to empower the protagonists of Moi, un noir is also a curse: Ganda would make the follow up Cabascabo (1969) because he had been unhappy with Moi, un noir. Ganda told author Pierre Haffner (1996) that ‘from one day to the next, we [i.e. Rouch and Ganda] were working together, and then Rouch did the editing... besides at first there was no question about making a film about the veteran of the war in Indochina; it was supposed to be a film about immigrants from Niger’. Cabascabo portrays problems faced by a young man who, like Ganda, returns to Niger after fighting for France in the Indochina war, and therefore recounts nearly the same issues and events as Rouch’s film. However, there is a central difference between the two: with Cabascabo Ganda wanted to set the record straight, meaning to express those matters and events with adequate detail, accuracy and emotional complexity.  

In conclusion, Moi, un noir’s endorsement and advocacy of an African cinema for Africans must always be borne in mind. Ultimately, Ganda and other 1960s African filmmakers who were or are now considered rightful elder statesmen in African cinema owe a debt to both Moi, un noir and Jean Rouch.

Bâ, S. M. (2010) ‘On the Transformation of the Spirit-Possession Film: towards Rouch as “Emergent Method”’. In: B. Schmidt and L. Huskinson (eds.), Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Continuum.

Ungar S. (2007) ‘Whose Voice? Whose Film?: Jean Rouch, Oumarou Ganda and Moi, un noir’, in Brink, J. (ed.), Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch. London and New York: Wallflower Press.

Author of this review: Saër Maty Bâ