Sugar Cane Alley

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Sugar Cane Alley
Sugar Cane Alley Poster.jpg
Directed byEuzhan Palcy
Written byEuzhan Palcy
Based onSugar Cane Alley by Joseph Zobel
Music byGroupe Malavoi
CinematographyDominique Chapuis
Edited byMarie-Josèphe Yoyotte
NEF Diffusion
Orca Productions
Distributed byNouvelles Éditions de Films (NEF)
Release date
  • 1983 (1983)
Running time
103 minutes

Sugar Cane Alley (French title: La Rue Cases-Nègres) is a 1983 film directed by Euzhan Palcy. It is set in Martinique in the 1930s, where blacks working sugarcane fields were still 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.


Jose, the protagonist, is a young boy living in a rural part of Martinique in the 1930s. Many of the people around him, including his grandmother, Ma'Tine, with whom he lives, work in the sugar cane fields where they are browbeaten and badly paid by the white boss. Ma'Tine is chronically ill, suffering several heart episodes, but continues to recover from them and continue her work to support Jose.

Jose, an orphan, has a father figure in an elderly man named Medouze who likes to tell him stories about Africa. Jose attends school at the insistence of his grandmother, who does not want him to end up working in the fields, the probable fate of most of his class. Medouze goes missing, and Jose finds him dead in a cane field. In order to earn his own lunch, Jose gets tricked into doing housework for a woman who lives near school, leading to him being repeatedly late for class and getting in trouble. Despite this, Jose excels at his French lessons and in his writing.

At school, Jose befriends a mulatto boy named Léopold but Léopold's white father does not want him to associate with the black field workers. When he drives by and sees Jose and Léopold playing, he orders Léopold to get in the car but, in trying to retrieve the horse that Léopold was riding, gets kicked in the stomach by it, leading to great injury. On his deathbed, his father refuses to acknowledge formally Léopold as his son, believing that a mulatto should not carry the family name. Léopold, devastated by his father's rejection, runs away from home and goes missing.

Jose gets high test scores and earns a partial scholarship to attend high school in Fort-de-France, the capital. Another student, a girl, also wins a place at the school, but her father has already promised her to other people and does not allow her to go. Jose gives her his pocket watch to express his condolence to her. His grandmother accompanies him to the capital, working as a laundrywoman for the rich white households to pay the remainder of the fees and their living costs. They are able to find a small trailer to use as a home thanks to Jose's friend Carmen who drives the boat between the rural area and Fort-de-France.

Jose deals with pressure around him, especially from one of his teachers. When he writes an essay on the lives of poor blacks he is accused of plagiarism, so he runs away from school, back to his small shack in the city. The professor goes to his house and tells José that he was wrongly accused, offering an apology and a full scholarship to the school and stipend monies. Jose makes enough stipend to relieve Ma'Tine from her laundress job.

Later Jose returns to Black Shack Alley after his grandmother has a heart attack while returning home from a trip to a local clothesmaker to make Jose a fresh suit. Jose sees Léopold being arrested for stealing the boss' ledger to prove that he was cheating the workers out of their earnings. As his grandmother dies, Jose is launched into a future he cannot control, but will continue to write about his home and the suffering of his bretheren.


17 international Awards. The film swept the César Awards (the equivalent of the Academy Award in France), and won four awards at the 40th Venice Film Festival., including the Silver Lion. The actress, Darling Légitimus, 76 years old at this period, won the Prize of Best Actress (Gold Lion). The film won also the Venice Film Festival Unicef Award and the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual (OCIC) award. In America, it won the First Prize Critics Award at the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival. In Africa it won the first Public Award at the Fespaco.

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