“Sembène is an African Molière.”-Jack Kroll, Newsweek
Often referred to as the “pioneer” or “dean” of African cinema, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (b. 1923) gained international recognition in 1966, when he was awarded the Jean Vigo Prize at Cannes for Black Girl. His films have influenced several generations of African filmmakers and allowed viewers in many parts of the world to gain greater insight into Senegalese culture. Known as a talented novelist before he turned his attention to filmmaking at age forty, Sembène was motivated to make films in order to reach a wider audience in African countries, where high illiteracy rates prevented his books from receiving broad circulation.
Sembène's cinema is about Senegal coming into its own as a nation; it addresses the growing pains associated with political independence. A number of his films deal with French colonial domination and its legacy (Black Girl, Emitaï, The Camp at Thiaroye) or the historical influence of Islam and Christianity on the region (Ceddo, Guelwaar). Others offer social commentaries on contemporary Senegalese life and explore tensions between African traditions and values inherited from the West (Mandabi, Xala, Faat-Kine). Over the years, certain films have been censored or banned temporarily by the Senegalese government (Xala, Ceddo) for being too critical of the government or of Islam, the country's primary religious group. Shaped by the school of Soviet social realism (he studied at the Gorki Studios), his cinema remains deeply rooted in social concerns, whether he is working in historical drama, political satire, or folklore-comedy.