African queen

Faat-Kine explores sexual politics in a new Africa

Like a Terry McMillan story set in Africa, Faat-Kine boasts a fierce, independent, sista more familiar from the Western pop culture of Oprah, fashion magazines and sitcoms than the pages of newspapers and Hollywood movies that make up our conception of that continent.

The most recent film from Africa's most celebrated director, 79-year-old Ousmane Sembene, Faat-Kine is a portrait of a Dakar woman making it on her own terms, but also of an Africa in transition, where Christian and Muslim work side by side, Western gas stations sit next to dirt roads, entrepreneurs with briefcases and crippled beggars share the sidewalk and a power struggle is under way between men and women whose relationships also exemplify the flux of a changing nation.

Played by a richly human, fallible and appealing Venus Seye, the heroine of Sembene's Faat-Kine has good reason to be aggressively self-reliant, considering her ugly past. Pregnant not once, but twice, by men who later deserted her — one a high school professor and the other a petty thief who stole her savings and fled Senegal — the teenage Kine is also rejected by her father who tries to burn her alive when he learns of her first pregnancy. Kine is left to raise her two children on her own, without family or husband to support her, and her accomplishment has a resonance that extends beyond the borders of Africa or Sembene's film.

Ousmane Sembene's story opens with Kine on more stable ground as a comfortable fortysomething with a beautiful home, a good job as the manager of a gas station and enough money to support her parents and her two college-bound children. A complicated character who won't suffer fools gladly but isn't above a good laugh, Kine's playfulness is captured in a scene where she enjoys the attention of a frisky bank teller who compliments her on her "caboose."

"Top-of-the-line caboose not for public transportation!" she jokes. But Kine is also deeply wary of any man who tries to insinuate himself into her life with a line of sweet talk and vaporous promises. And try they do. Over the course of Sembene's film, lovers-past visit Kine like Dickensian ghosts, begging her for another try or for money, unaware that any of the charms they may have once used to seduce are powerless against this world-wise, cynical grown woman.

Faat-Kine suggests a director appraising a new generation of women in a new Africa. Financially independent, salty as all-get-out, these women nevertheless live in a society that still supports polygamy, arranged marriages and often treats women like chattel. And evidence of the vital, real-world humanism of Sembene's film is his flawed central character. Kine is a not always a likeable representative of that New Woman, one who lords her bourgeois position over her inferiors and in other ways flaunts the power she has worked so hard to achieve.

Faat-Kine often feels like a feminist call to arms with the breezy, good-humored tone of populist entertainment. Faat-Kine is neither shrew nor political mouthpiece, just a woman who wants to have fun, who talks about sex in explicit detail with her girlfriends and loves her children. Progressive on one hand, Faat-Kine also can recall classic women's melodrama like Douglas Sirk's 1955 weepy All That Heaven Allows in which a widow's (Jane Wyman) relationship with her younger gardener (Rock Hudson) makes her a social outcast. Desperate to "fix" their mother, Wyman's children fix her up with crusty old bores and, in the film's depressing coupe de grace, buy her a television to keep her occupied. Likewise, Kine's two well-meaning children, soon to head off to college, are desperate to find their mother a husband before they leave. It takes a director of some age and empathy to pick up on the small cruelties families can inflict on one another, and that children can mete out to their parents. In one of two emotional outbursts in Faat-Kine, a rightfully outraged Kine reminds her children of how badly the men in her life have burned her, and how insulting their offer to "fix her up" has been.

Grievously wronged one minute, Kine is full of mirth the next. Kine has the air of a trickster who delights in beating society at its own double-standard, the one that allows men to do as they please, and demands that women obey or suffer the consequences. While Kine and her women friends are benefiting from changes in African society, the men in Faat-Kine cling to the traditions of old Africa which allows them to marry as many women as they like and demands total obedience from wife and child.

But while Kine's former lovers come forward to demand the privileges of patriarchs, Sembene is quick to point out they don't act like husbands or fathers. Faat-Kine is an explicitly judgmental film that paints the majority of its men as scoundrels who abandon pregnant women and children as they desire, and birth more children than they can afford to feed. Sembene is harsh in his critique of the men in Faat-Kine who expect to be treated like kings but behave like dogs. Instead, it's women who act with honor and nobility in this new world order.

Watching Kine and her proud, defiant female friends, her servant remarks "They are women with men's hearts." That notion carries no sense of judgment in Sembene's film, only a degree of awe-struck respect for these women who have had to assume much of the responsibility men have shirked.