Black Man Time: ‘Post’-Colonialism as Conspiracy in ‘Xala’

By Justin Hogg |

This is part of a Blind Field series on Long Seventies Conspiracy Cinema.

“When I see you begging like a slave, / Each and every day, / You’ve got to listen to what I say! / And leave the corner and run away… Instead of begging on the corner everyday, / You hear what the brother say!… So black man you’ve got to be free like the birds in the trees, / And live in love and unity for I and I, / Baby, you can make it if you try, / So dis yah black man time, so dis yah black man time!” — I Roy, “Black Man Time”

Xala is a film of visual facades — a satire of ‘post’-coloniality as a dominant conspiracy of global capitalism. Adapted from a novel of the same name by author/director Ousmane Sembène, it takes place at the precise moment of Senegal’s independence from French colonial rule in 1960. The film debuted in 1975 and follows El Hadji, an African bureaucrat who takes a third wife, but who cannot consummate the marriage due to his inability to get it up, or what is known as his “Xala” — a Wolof word that roughly translates to impotency. This impotency is transferred through a spell, usually cast for the sake of revenge. With this spell as the invisible center of its narrative, Xala is ultimately a film of lacks, concerned with not only the lack of El Hadji, but as we will see, of a simultaneously present and waning Western capitalist system deeply entrenched in West Africa. Eventually, El Hadji, relieved of his duties as a bureaucrat for blowing all his cash on his failed marriage, loses the rights to his third wife, and must come face to face with the conjurers of his Xala.

The film begins on the streets of Dakar, at the ostensible turning point of revolution. A barrage of throbbing percussive sounds fills the air. As the camera cuts to a mass of black bodies dancing, a group of African men dressed in flowing garbs emerge from the crowd and storm the Chambre de Commerce, a voice proclaiming that the group must “take what is ours.” These chosen men, including El Hadji, walk with purpose, wind blowing at their backs, the sun beating down on their flesh. We know not where they came from, who appointed them, what “people” they speak for, who they are taking from. We soon find out. The disembodied voice goes on to say that, “We must control our industry, our commerce, our culture.” The camera cuts to the inside of the government building from behind three French men who look up from their seemingly routine work in surprise as the group of African men converge. And yet, what presents itself as a revolutionary moment, a supposed expropriation of the master’s tools into the hands of the oppressed, an intended ejection of the French colonial presence as Frantz Fanon and others would write of in the late ‘50s and onwards, is nothing more than a farce.

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This initial scene in the Chamber of Commerce is presented in a comical fashion — with these not-so-revolutionary bringers of “African Socialism,” as the narrating voice puts it , making exaggerated gestures and staring down the colonizers as if putting on a poor theater performance. They remove the statues and art from the shelves, white and pristine in their Europeanness, placing them on the steps outside of the government building to the delighted cheers of the raucous crowd they have left behind. This should be a moment with as many revolutionary implications as Fela Kuti’s song “Coffin For Head of State” — that commemorates the occasion in which Fela and his Afrika 70 Organisation carried an empty coffin to the steps of Obasanjo’s army who murdered his mother by throwing her out of her own window. [1] However, this moment is most assuredly far from that. It is instead a moment which mirrors the theme of Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul’s 1979 novel, A Bend In The River, of “black men assuming the lies of white men.” [2] This line is spoken by Salim, the main character in the novel, an Indian Muslim who has always felt himself to be not African enough. The root of this is fear of what he calls “one political system we had known coming to to an end” on the coast of Africa where he and his family are from, and its eventual replacement with something far worse.

In Xala, these new African leaders — the self-proclaimed “sons of the people,” institutors of African Socialism and the bearers of “Africanity” — enter the Chamber of Commerce as an emphatic mob, pointing out the three French men who are theatrically doing official work. The French men, who seem to have been anticipating this moment, relieve themselves of their duties swiftly, gathering up their prepared briefcases and exiting. I say “relieved” because to say that they are expelled in this moment is the exact visual contradiction that Sembène establishes. The French men leave their seats and walk out of the Chamber of Commerce as if it were all planned, passing steps which are littered with their European statues, with their European hats to be dusted off and donned once again.

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In the very next scene however, they return, overseeing the induction of the new African leaders. All members of the new party have abandoned their African silks and garbs, and instead wear beautifully tailored suits. They are the new colonists. The new minister hangs a painting of who he calls the “father of the nation,” their “sanctioned guide,” never explained, to which all the members of the party cheer and honor. The recently not so expunged French colonizers return with briefcases. One by one the new bureaucrats open their gifts, smiling at what is contained inside, nodding to their cohorts in approval. The minister opens his case, revealing hundreds of crisp Senegalese bills. The entire scene is all extremely scripted, theatrical, and comical. It is a moment of denaturalization,  pointing to the fact that nothing has changed with the replacement of French bureaucrats with Senegalese bureaucrats, that there is nothing liberating or revolutionary about this action.

Fredric Jameson writes of this very moment in his essay “Periodizing the 60s,” declaring: 

This is of course the moment to observe that the “liberation” of new forces in the third world is as ambiguous as this term frequently tends to be (freedom as separation from older systems); to put it more sharply, it is the moment to recall the obvious, that decolonization historically went hand in hand with neo-colonialism, and that the graceful, grudging, or violent end of an old-fashioned imperialism certainly meant the end of one kind of domination but evidently also the invention and construction of a new kind… [3]

Xala visualizes what Jameson establishes as the ambiguity of liberation in the scene around the chamber of commerce. A Fanonian conception of “decolonization,” of a violent overthrow and ejection of the colonizer, is completely absent in not just this scene, but throughout the film. This primal moment of decolonization is an absent presence, a palpable omission. 

Instead of a violent revolutionary imaginary, the film conjures images of extravagant wedding gatherings between the African bourgeoisie; we see the fine stitching of a bureaucrat’s suit, the polished body of his Mercedes Benz, a bottle of imported Evian water sitting on his desk. These images align nicely with Jameson’s concept of a “graceful” end to former colonial rule; there are no grudges explored, no violence between the French colonizers and the African bureaucrats. It is a smooth and planned transition. This transition matches the historical language of Senegalese independence from France, what in legal terms is called a “transfer of power,” which was signed on April 4, 1960. The language of transfer and power, not of struggle, is an important distinction here that calls into question freedom, liberation, and most importantly, post-coloniality.

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There are multiple layers of conspiracy operating in Xala. Some are revealed, while others are concealed. What I have called the “farce” of the chamber of commerce scene must be read closely with the concept of conspiracy. By farce I mean something that points attention to itself so blatantly that it cannot be read as naturally occurring, but instead, orchestrated by an agent outside of what is being seen. In the film, we are visually introduced and saturated with the images of all of the main conspirators– the French colonists, the African Bureaucrats, later the untouchables. There is no government man behind the scenes, no stalker waiting to strike our hero. Conspiracy still drives the film, however, given mobility through this notion of the farce, in the presence and proximity of the French colonizers, and in the events waiting to happen.

In the case of Xala and its main conspirators, the wealth has simply been further distilled — a few Senegalese bureaucrats are given wealth and job titles so that it appears to viewers and subjects in the film as though Senegal has been liberated from French colonial rule and entered a “post”-colonial moment. Farce. The African leaders as they exist in this film would lack — would suffer — without the presence of the former colonial agents. Their background presence gives ontological status to El Hadji and the other bureaucrats: they are the dependent, not independent. The main French agent, a moustached man who never utters a word in the entire film, appears not only in the chamber of commerce, but at El Hadji’s wedding, and later his expulsion from the bureaucratic circle, his presence questioningly lingering.

The proximity of the French colonists to the new African leaders keeps the farce/conspiracy on both of its feet — an interlude of fake revolution, of non-liberation, of a replacement of light skin with dark, of a continuance of abundant wealth, imported automobiles, imported water, excess to which only few have access. It is this forced colonial contact, the intractable presence and absence of Western capital which El Hadji, the main subject of the film, must constantly balance. It is the farce which not only drives the conspiracy, but as we see, the two converge and overlap when necessary. It is this union of the two which is not able to be seen or touched, only lying behind the frame, only visible through distinct agents.

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There exists another interlude — of able bodiedness, of strength, of masculinity and its ties to colonial power, and bureaucracy  — most clearly given agency through a group of recurring characters in the film. These are the undesirables, the “human rubbish” as El Hadji calls them, who seem to stalk and follow him at every turn. They have no Mercedes Benzes, no imported water, no fancy suits. After El Hadji reveals to the minister that he suspects he has the Xala, the minister asks, “Who did that to you?” In this same moment, the musical theme of the undesirables, the beggars, a repetitive scale played on a two stringed chordophone, coupled with a high pitched male voice bellows out. Frantically, El Hadji calls for them to be deported. They have set up right outside of his depot, he cannot stand them. They are always present, like flies.

The undesirables are “bad for tourism,” the minister notes to the police on the phone, which I would like to read in tandem with the farce of the French colonizers explored earlier. What they are actually doing in this close of proximity to El Hadji is providing the agency for the conspiracy to take hold. Undesirables are those who society — but more specifically, commerce, business, and capitalism — does not appear to touch, does not account for, while being those who are nonetheless touched, and are nonetheless forced into contact with everyday citizens and commodities. This is seen physically, as most of this “human rubbish” are maimed, suffer from bodily deformations, blind, perceived as disease ridden. They are often without family, are socially dead, and unable to extend their own family lines through marriage or childbirth. In the film, the untouchables are solely male, suggesting a complete break from the possibility of sexual contact, let alone love. Their closeness to El Hadji’s place of commerce (their backs literally rub up against the faded blue of his property), establish this intersection of extreme wealth and poverty, globalization and surplus population, which we must read ironically since it is El Hadji who cannot give his third wife a child, and since it is El Hadji who is supposed to represent the antithesis of an untouchable. Like the unnamed moustached French man, the untouchables are given many isolated scenes in between the focus on El Hadji; scenes of them walking the desert, breaking bread amongst one another, scenes that feel out of place in the grand narrative of El Hadji’s impotency. Why the focus on these untouchables?

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Towards the end of the film, when El Hadji has blown through all of his government money and is caught by his fellow conspirators, when his Mercedes Benz is repossessed, his shop shuttered, it is the same beggar’s theme that coyly plays in the background. This music is present only where the untouchables are, and like clockwork, Gorgui, the leader of the untouchables, already once deported by El Hadji sits just outside his now repossessed shop, his back firm against the building once again. He mentions to El Hadji’s driver that he can cure his Xala easily. The next scene shows the beggars marching to El Hadji’s house, the bow legged and crippled climbing the stairs of his domain, the same theme playing. They make themselves at home, helping themselves to lounging and liberating the contents of his refrigerator in the film’s only revolutionary moment. They restlessly wait for El Hadji in the living room, the theme still incessantly playing.

Finally, El Hadji emerges to meet the raucous crowd in his living room. How his emergence and how this raucous crowd have changed since the opening scene! The farce dissolves, as there is nothing to point behind to or beyond. The scene does not call attention to itself, is instead a direct and frank confrontation between the untouchables and the former bureaucrat. El Hadji has nothing now but his Xala; he is at the will of the untouchables. What remains in this scene is not just El Hadji’s Xala, but his belief that he has the Xala. In this context, “African modernity” and “African socialism” and the other signs of “progress” preached at the start of the film by the very men in control of the country’s economy, which would seem to leave behind such “backward” beliefs as Xala, become untouchable and inaccessible.

Gorgui, the leader of this untouchable group reveals to El Hadji that it is he who has “arranged” El Hadji’s Xala, citing revenge over the one time falsification of his name, seizure of his property, imprisonment, blindness, and eventual untouchable status. The authenticity of the Xala however is brought into question with Gorgui’s insistence that for El Hadji to become a man again, for him to be cured, he must undress and allow himself to be spit on. The young man to his right, who is earlier in the film made untouchable through the theft of his wealth (by the eventual bureaucrat who replaces El Hadji) and imprisonment, tells El Hadji that, “You’ve lost your honor and dignity, at least keep your virility.” At least. The viewer is made to question then the nature of El Hadji’s Xala, whether Xala itself is real, or some invented mind game to feed the male paranoid. Clearly, it does not matter. The viewer is surely led to believe then that there is no cure by the film’s end, that the Xala does not actually exist, that Gorgui’s demand to spit on El Hadji is simply fueled by his long overdue quest for revenge. El Hadji, of course, allows himself to be spit on, so that he can keep his virility, at least. For this brief but final moment, it is the untouchables who perform a direct and equivocal action, their globs of spit bypassing the necessity to be translated by viewer or character in the film, a scene that is finally non-farcical in nature.

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Here, the untouchables visualize and give life to the farce of post-coloniality: they represent the unending project of globalization and global capital, showing that life has gotten no better or worse for them under African control. They reckon with El Hadji at the film’s end, their proximity to him no accident, but a carefully planned meeting of the two extremes of class/caste by our farcical master Sembène. In contrast with El Hadji (who is replaced by his party with a thief in a handsome suit), the untouchables, despite deportation and all efforts in the film to make them go away, cannot be replaced or ignored. The untouchables are a fulcrum for the intersections of post-coloniality and conspiracy, the contradictions of revolution and non-liberation.

Xala exposes and ultimately dissolves the correspondence between conspiracy and post-coloniality by presenting its conspiracy in a farcical manner, mainly through the fixation on three intersecting agents in the film: the former French colonizers, the African bureaucrats, and the untouchables. Conspiracy is represented as being completely visible in the bodily form, totally seen to viewers, exaggerated even, especially in the scene in the chamber of commerce. In this sense, Xala gives us the filmic tools to read post-coloniality as conspiracy itself, as something used by conspirators, whether visible or invisible, to fill the velvet linings of a briefcase, to keep clean the leather of a Mercedes, to keep the beggars’ backs off the place of commerce.

 

Works Cited

[1] Hanaford, Alex. ‘’He was in a godlike state’. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/jul/25/popandrock.worldmusic

[2] Naipaul, V.S. A Bend In The River. New York: Vintage, 1989. 23

[3] Jameson, Fredric. “Periodizing the 60s.” The Sixties Without Apology. Ed. Sohnya Sayres, Anders Stephanson, Stanley Aronowitz, Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 184

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