In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ousmane Sembène

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Biography
  • Films About Sembène

African Studies Ousmane Sembène
Amadou Fofana
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0227


In 1960, when Senegal became independent from France, Ousmane Sembène was already an established author in French. He had published Le docker noir (1956), O pays mon beau peuple (1957), and his famous novel, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (1960). His other books are Voltaïque, Véhi-Ciosane ou Blanche-Genèse: Suivi du Mandat, Xala, L’harmattan, Niiwam suivi de Taaw, Guelwaar, Le dernier de l’empire. However, Sembène had repeatedly expressed frustration that the overwhelming majority of audiences for whom he wrote could not read his work because they were not literate in French. To reach out to them, he resorted to cinema and made Borom Sarret (The Cart Driver) in 1963, a film admittedly referred to as the first sub-Saharan African film. Three years later, he released the very first sub-Saharan African feature length, La noire de . . . (Black Girl), in 1966. In 1968, he made the very first sub-Saharan African film in color using an African language, Manda bi (The Money Order). The films that followed incorporated a combination of African languages and French. His other films include Niaye (1964), Emitaï (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1992), Faat Kine (2000), and Moolaade (2005). Born in 1923 during the pinnacle of Senegal’s colonial occupation by the French, Sembène was the son of a fisherman in the southern region of Senegal. He grew up under colonial rule, went briefly to a French-language school, worked as a mechanic and bricklayer, served in the French military, and then moved to France in 1946, at the age of 23. He was a self-taught man who learned to read and write while working at the docks in Marseilles. Although he lived to be 84—he passed away in June 2007—the first decades and most formative years of his life were spent under colonial domination. He was both an eyewitness to colonial rule and a subject of its dominance. He also lived through the tumultuous period during which Africans struggled to liberate themselves from the grip of foreign occupation. In other words, Sembène’s life spanned three of the most significant eras of recent African history: colonialism, the years of struggle for liberation, and the first half-century of independence. He was a living chronicler of Senegal’s history.

General Overview

Even though Sembène’s novels and films have drawn much attention from critics, very few monographs have been dedicated to his works. Among the most compelling is Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s early critical overview of his first films. Vieyra 1972 contextualizes Sembène’s life and cinema and provides testimonies, interviews, critical analyses, and a technical description of his filmmaking style. Moore 1973 offers an insightful look into Sembène’s life and work. Pfaff 1984 is an inspiring film-by-film analysis of eight of Sembène’s films, from Borom Sarret (1963) to Ceddo (1976). Using Sembène’s prose as example, Nzabatsinda 1996 examines the concepts of language, linguistic norms, and diglossia, and how they apply to Francophone African literary production. Murphy 2001 is a well-documented analysis of both Sembène’s films and literary works. In it, Murphy explains Sembène’s re-reading of Africa’s past, his critical gaze into African cultures, and his singular interpretation of modernity in Senegal. Sikounmo 2010 discusses the uniqueness of Sembène’s career trajectory, his attachment to his home country, and his sympathetic treatment of the working class. Fofana 2012 is an authoritative reading of Sembène’s entire filmic oeuvre from Borom Sarret to Moolaade. The book contributes new insights into Sembène’s interpretations of cultural practices and the meanings he ascribes to social behaviors. Diagne 2014 provides a critical study of Sembène’s narrative techniques as well as the major themes in his works.

  • Diagne, Ismaïla. Lire et relire Sembene Ousmane. Paris: Harmattan, 2014.

    An insightful close reading of Sembène’s texts and the significance of symbols as well as body language and other signs in the larger context of Senegalese culture.

  • Fofana, Amadou Tidiane. The Films of Ousmane Sembène: Discourse, Politics, and Culture. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012.

    An in-depth discussion of the griot tradition, its corruption in modern times, and Sembène’s subversion of the practice offers a glimpse into the complicated relationship between past and present practices, and how such complication fed Sembène’s art.

  • Moore, Carrie Dailey. “Evolution of an African Artist: Social Realism in the Works of Ousmane Sembène.” PhD, diss., Indiana University, 1973.

    An invaluable critical work that put Sembène’s early works in the context of broader socioeconomic challenges facing the continent at the time they were produced.

  • Murphy, David. Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction. Oxford: First Africa World Press, 2001.

    A comprehensive overview of Sembène’s novels and films. It amply discusses Sembène’s reading of history, colonialism, and post-independence, as well as aspects of African cultures including gender roles.

  • Nzabatsinda, Anthère. Normes linguistiques et écriture africaine chez Ousmane Sembène. Toronto: Editions du Gref, 1996.

    A thought-provoking reflection on the use of French as an African language, and the challenges African writers face navigating between their indigenous languages and French.

  • Pfaff, Francoise. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene, a Pioneer of African Film. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

    A comprehensive and compelling reading of the aesthetic, sociopolitical, and symbolic aspects of Sembène’s films. It includes excerpts from interviews with Sembène and other African filmmakers.

  • Sikounmo, Hilaire. Ousmane Sembène: Écrivain populaire. Paris: Harmattan, 2010.

    A French language study of Sembène’s unique trajectory and how he successfully managed to position himself as the voice of the voiceless.

  • Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou. Ousmane Sembène cinéaste: Première période, 1962–1971. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1972.

    One of the very first critical essays on African cinema. It offers critical analyses of each of Sembène’s films as well as insightful knowledge about their making.

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