The new African film Adanggaman is as fundamental, and as haunted, as a combat scar. Landing visually somewhere between Ousmane Sembène’s no-frills frontal attack and Souleymane Cissé’s dazzling Yeelen, this modest yet appalling feature by Ivory Coast native and 30-year filmmaking vet Roger Gnoan M’Bala inevitably becomes a date with historicization. Ostensibly factual, helplessly self-conscious, targeted like a smart bomb at African society but cagily aware of Western eyes, Adanggaman is being touted as the continent’s first film about slavery as it was experienced on African soil—where the victims and enslavers were both native peoples, often battling along tribal lines. Coming from today’s equatorial belt, it’s a startling analogue of contemporary horrors.
However accurate, M’Bala’s film serves as a single-stroke demonstration of truth making hamburger out of the nearly universal human urge to simplify it into mythic dualities. It’s significantly less satisfying to be told that, for 400 years, Africans were captured and sold not only by the Dutch and the British but by gold-lusting, bloodline-righteous Africans. So Adanggaman‘s sociopolitical wallop belongs to the present. (To a tribesman on a death ship to the New World, the racial identity of his kidnapper was surely a secondary concern.) Indeed, M’Bala’s characters don’t talk race; they just run, beginning with Ossei (Ziable Honore Goore Bi), a young warrior in love with a slave girl his father won’t allow to muddy the family’s lineage. After a raid by painted, spear-wielding “amazons” wipes out the village, the survivors are marched to the village of King Adanggaman (Rasmane Ouedraogo), an archetypal African plundercrat happily selling off humans for English rum and rifles.
Trying to rescue his mother, Ossei gets himself recaptured, and a large part of Adanggaman entails the chained slaves’ waiting in the nightened wilderness for “the dreadful voyage across the ocean.” M’Bala subtly but clearly demarcates the caste prejudices that make the system—by extension, all social systems—work like a pig pile. At least four social classes are seen in action, each exploited or oppressed by the next. “Stinking beasts!” is a common slur; the irony becomes deadly during a check-the-teeth slave-market scene that’s the cracked-mirror image of American representations like Mandingo and Roots.
The most persnickety viewers may suspect loaded iconographic dice, what with the hero’s tribe’s naked naturalness offset by the female rampagers’ exotic body paint and festoonery. It’s impossible to say how precise or opportunistic M’Bala is being, since even today Africa is commonly boiled down for us from thousands of disparate cultures to a mere handful. (The movie uses up to five distinct tribal languages, plus French.) In any case, since it is color-blind, Adanggaman effortlessly buries race hatred and tribal bile as issues, leaving only the raw grinder of capitalism.
An infinitely more familiar exploration of vice, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is truly a movie that requires no introduction, except as it is rereleased with new subtitles (the racy song lyrics are now spelled out) and in the best print anyone’s seen in 70 years. A film school “classic” that survives as an unemphatic intersection between kammerspielfilm grittiness and Tudor-urban expressionism, The Blue Angel is more notorious for its legend-making than its experience as film. But it remains a surprisingly sharp and deft morality tale, however prosaic it seems relative to, say, Fritz Lang’s M (one year later), or the baroque explosions of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s subsequent voyage to Hollywood. As the officious college prof lured by Dietrich’s slatternly nightclub tramp into the prideless life of a parasitic clown, Emil Jannings got to exercise his specialty once more: authoritative tyrants systematically hacked down to splinters. But Dietrich is the movie’s primary cannon: Her amused eyes, open face, and relaxed sensuality monopolize our sympathies. Far from the amoral vampire she’s been characterized as for decades, Dietrich’s Lola Lola is warm, fun, and responsive—the film’s most beguiling image is her pleasantly amazed gape as Jannings’s “Unrath” impulsively ejects a john from her room. Lola Lola does marry the pompous hump after all, and narratively five content years pass before the climactic Golgotha. Who decided this filly was vagina dentata personified?