Breaking Borders in Sugar Cane Alley

by cmoel2 on November 18, 2013 - 11:57pm

          Martinique is an island in the French Indies that has beautiful and very bountiful sugar cane feilds. In the film Sugar Cane Alley (Palcy, 1983) a 1930's Martinique is depicted and the story of a young boy named José told. José is a young orphan black child living with his grandmother who works in the sugar cane feilds. His village is made up of families who work in the cane feilds, all of these families happen to be black and their bosses happen to be white. After independance and slavery was abolished in France and in Martinique, the blacks were free but they had no jobs but those in the feilds and working in houses. Although it seemed like they had gained freedom, these black natives had only lost one form of enslavement and gained another. In this film, racial tensions rise and the borders between class and race are crossed and tested to see which hold up in the sugar cane alley.

          The film Sugar Cane Alley depicts the life of a young boy trying to break away from his future in the cane fields and towards a brighter one. José is a young boy living with his grandmother in a cane field village. Those around him work in the cane fields and are under the watchful eye of the white overseers always. These overseers cannot whip the blacks anymore, but they can withhold pay and make their lives living hell. We get a glimpse of this tense racial relationship early in the film when the families are working in the fields and then go and get paid. Another, more interesting, racial relationship is that between José and his friend Leopold. Leopold is a mulatto, meaning his mother is black and his father is white. Leopold's father is a rich man from France who is the top overseer of the sugar factory in Martinique. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses many instances in which Leopold might be confused about his higher class ranking and his race because of where he lives, who his parents are, and who his friends are. The children don't seem to care that Leopold is rich or mulatto, but Leopold's father is furious when he finds his son playing with the riff-raff from sugar cane alley. He tells his son that they're better and shouldn't be seen with those of lower status. The audience gets a clear image of the racial and classisist superiority that Leopold's father feels, but that Leopold doesn't quite undestand and agree with. Later on in the movie, Leopold's father becomes fatally ill and is begged by his wife to let Leopold take the de Thoral last name and inherit his father's legacy. Monsieur de Thoral immediately disreguards this notion saying that the de Thoral name cannot be soiled by being carried by a mulatto. The name came from whites and it will stay in the hands of a white no matter what. This is the ultimate betrayal of father and son, and all because of race and the boundaries it held back in 20th century Martinique. One of the main struggles for José was for him to get an education and be able to progress past the cane fields and onto someplace else. The opportunity to go to school and then progress through school is something that seldom happens to a young black boy from the slums. Education and the expectations of education are only held for the upper class making it very hard for others to succeed. Although José is the best student in his class, he has to pay to go to the secondary school which is an exhorbitant rate for someone whose income is very small. This clearly favors those in society who have money and can spare it for their children to go to school. Nonetheless, José perseveres and in the end achieves greatly in the secondary school despite his class and where he's from.

          I love foreign films in general, but this film had a subtelty and is desceptively gently about the way that it portrays the story of a young black boy who is growing up poor, proud and fiercely ambitious on the French West Indian island of Martinique in the early 1930's and trying to break out of the mold that society has put him in. I would recommend this film to my friends and my professors because it is wonerful and deals with harsh topics like race is class in such a gentle and classy way.


Palcy, E. (Director), & Zobel, J. (Writer) (1983). Sugar cane alley [VHS].

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