Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley, a stark look at the lives of kids in a shanty town on the Caribbean isle of Martinique, takes its subject seriously but is cognisant of its Western audience, expecting a hero’s downfall and success. After stealing some rum and drunkenly setting fire to a building, the children receive a harsh beating, and life in the community becomes a lot less amicable. Matriarch Ma Tine decides that her grandson Jose’s only hope is to go to school and work hard. Although he still can’t help misbehaving, Jose begins to enjoy school more and more, surprising his teacher with eloquent responses gleaned from the philosophical conversations he had had with Medouze, a warm-hearted elder in the village.
The film often feels like a precursor to City of God, sharing the story of an underprivileged youth emerging from an impoverished community with artistic prospects. Jose eventually becomes, in the words of Ma Tine as she describes a stillborn child she births, “another kid saved from the white man’s cane fields”. The cinematography occasionally emerges with some gorgeous images, the apricot sky providing a surreal backdrop for the evening of the fire.
Medouze, a sympathetic adult figure who makes no attempts to hide his distaste for the colonialists, beguiles Jose with his inspirational, long-winded stories, and comes to give him and the audience some important lessons, most notably that “man can destroy life, but he cannot recreate it. Forget your own name, son, but don’t ever forget that”.