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The Metropolitan Myth: Assimilation, Racism and Cultural Devaluation in Soleil O and Pièces d'Identités Sheila Petty ON FIRST INSPECTION, IT SEEMS POSSIBLE that the contemporary metropolis provides the ideal locus for debates on the nature of "postcolonialism." Critics such as Iain Chambers and Allessandro Triulzi have postulated that the city, with its diverse cultural, local and global influences, offers a space in which to engage in discussions of the symbolic production of the postcolonial.1 However, for African migrants who have traveled to the cities of their former colonizers in search of new opportunities, the notion of a postcolonial space seems illusory when faced with systemic racism and continued economic exploitation. Rooted in power dynamics based on the advancement of white superiority and the entrenchment of black inferiority, such urban environments continue to play out center-periphery dichotomies established during colonialism.2 The relationship of Africans to the metropolitan capitals of their colonizers is a complex and conflicted one. Held up in the past as bastions of wealth, culture and liberty, these cities possess a mythological promise of prosperity and equality. Reinforced by colonial policies that undermined African culture, educational systems and state bureaucracies have reified the acquisition of French language and culture as the only expression of civilization and advancement. In effect, a paradox was created where the colonizer's metropolis came to be something both desired and loathed, a site and symbol of fractured modemity which both destroyed indigenous culture and promised an illusory relief from desperate economic inequities exacerbated by the colonial legacy still in force after Independence. It is not surprising, therefore, that this relationship has been the subject of challenge throughout the history of sub-Saharan African cinema. Seminal films such as Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl (Senegal, 1966) and Djibril Diop Mambety's Touki-Bouki (Senegal, 1973) offer biting critiques of the illusion of Paris as the "promised land" of affluence and equality for African migrants fleeing poverty. More recently, films such as Toubab bi (Moussa Touré, Mali, 1992), Le Cri du cœur (Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso, 1994) and Ciando (Jean Marie Teno, Cameroon, 19%) have continued this tradition by problematizing the colonizer's metropolis as the site of a living colonial legacy. In Vol. XLI, No. 3 163 L'Esprit Créateur this essay, through an analysis of the films Soleil 0 (Med Hondo, France/Mauritania , 1970) and Pièces d'Identités (Mweze Ngangura, Congo/Belgium, 1998), I intend to examine how African filmmakers question the very postcoloniality of these metropolitan spaces. In particular, this investigation will demonstrate how projects of assimilation, racism and cultural devaluation begun during colonialism continue to persist in the contemporary metropolis. Although separated by almost three decades, Soleil O and Pièces d'Identités expose strikingly similar aspects of the continuing inequalities of colonialism, thus demonstrating the degree to which they are embedded in the cities of Paris and Brussels respectively. Both films target metropolitan space as problematic and critique the ways in which the postcolonial era has failed to address the imbalance of relations of power inherited from the colonial period.3 Focused on a nameless black African migrant, Soleil O chronicles the migration of Africans to France during the 1950s and 1960s, a period pejoratively termed the "black invasion" by the French. At this point in history, the European migrant labor force France depended upon was replaced by mass migration of immigrants from a colonial empire in dissolution, creating societal tensions as the landscape of French society was transformed by the influx of new cultures and influences.4 Paradoxically, the transformation of French society simultaneously resulted in an entrenchment of colonial power disparities, which reinforced patterns of systemic oppression initiated under colonial rule. These attitudes were reflected through the economic exploitation of the black African migrants who, despite education and skill levels, were relegated to the lowest mngs of employment as laborers. Denied adequate housing and subject to extreme racism, these migrants found themselves trapped between a Parisian bureaucracy that resented their presence and post-Independence African governments who regarded their situation as France's problem. Soleil O's depiction of the black migrant as persona non grata in...


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pp. 163-171
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