West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979)


The Screening Room @VTIFF Sat, Jul 13 7:00 PM


Mauritania, Algeria | 110 minutes
In French w/subtitles
Director: Med Hondo


There aren’t too many movies like Med Hondo’s West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty. From 1979, this musical dramatizes 400 years of French colonialism in Africa through song and dance. Though the story traverses oceans, the film was shot entirely on a massive replica of a slave ship built in an abandoned factory in Paris. 


West Indies proved a watershed event for African cinema—the continent’s first musical as well as a sui generis amalgam of historical epic, Broadway revue, Brechtian theater, and joyous agitprop. With the enormous mock slave ship as the film’s only soundstage, Hondo mounts intricately choreographed reenactments and dance numbers to investigate a relentless parade of imperialist oppression. No mere extravaganza, West Indies is a call to arms for a spectacular yet critical cinematic reimagining of an entire people’s history of resistance and struggle.


Given its explosive subject matter and presentation, it’s not hard to see how Hondo frightened the mainstream. His movies struggled to get proper distribution, and he financed his films by dubbing American films and becoming the French voices of Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington. Few saw West Indies, despite the fact that everyone who watched it absolutely love it. 


One such fan is Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, who’s attempting to get the film to a wider audience.


“I was blown away when I first saw it, but saddened that this wasn’t something in the canon,” Jenkins said. “If you’re a young person who loves movies, how is this not one of the first five films that someone’s telling you to watch?”