Sylvain Dampierre's short, brisk documentary doesn't quite say anything new, but the milieu it uses to make its point is compelling
The still-long shadow of slavery haunts Words of Negroes, Sylvaine Dampierre’s documentary exploring how little has meaningfully changed for the Black population of Guadeloupe between the 19th century and the present day. As workers in a sugar factory read out the transcript of a trial held in 1842 after the death in custody of a slave accused of sorcery and poisoning his master’s oxen, the parallels between his situation and the present labourers are made clear – they do menial, physically taxing work for an employer that sees them as utterly expendable, making negligible (or even no) money as they do so.
We might have left chattel slavery behind us, but Dampierre reminds us that the ongoing exploitation of greedy imperialism (Guadeloupe is still a French colonial territory to this day) is a near-insurmountable obstacle on the journey towards a fair world. The violence may now be more subtle, more intangible in its nature than the corporal punishment doled out in the 19th century testimonies read by the factory workers, but it is still destructive, making for a powerful throughline across Words of Negroes’ brief, less than 80-minute runtime.
The workers themselves slide between miserable fury at their situation and charming camaraderie with one another, whilst their often affect-less readings of what are some pretty distressing transcripts are sometimes moving and often compellingly dissonant. The whole thing is rather slight – perhaps unavoidable in a film as short as this – and you never get the feeling that it’s quite saying anything new, but the setting and its people are fascinating.
Scenes within the factory can be rather hypnotic as the brutal machinery and the men that work it turn sugar cane into sellable product. You can feel the scraping, dirty discomfort of the tools and the mess they make, everything looking a few decades out of date, right down to the collapsing corrugated-metal walls. Through this neglected milieu where safety is clearly sacrificed for profit, Dampierre shows us that labour is still a taken-for-granted thing, and how monumental a task it seems to be to ever truly fix that.
Words of Negroes is released on True Story from 10 March.Where to watch