Criterion Prediction #180: Oh, Sun, by Alexander Miller
Title: Oh, Sun (aka Soleil O)
Director: Med Hondo
Cast: Robert Liensol, Theo Legitimus, Gabriel Glissant, Mabousso Lo
Synopsis: Oh, Sun tracks the journey of an African man who leaves his native land for Paris. While French colonialism is behind him, Parisian culture leaves a lot to be desired in this freewheeling exploration of race and society.
Critique: Oh, Sun is a curio of world cinema but it should be held alongside the great rebel yell films from the period like Black Girl, Weekend, Putney Swope or the genre-bending classic Chronicle of a Summer.
Hondo’s film starts out with a bunch of African men, sporting their native garb, marching up to a tribunal presided over by a Christian minister. The varied men confess to the sin of speaking their native language, whether it’s Creole, Bamoun, Quicon, Swahili or Wolof.
After they’re baptized, they are sent out marching with giant crosses. Shortly afterward, the crosses turn around and become mock swords. They line up before a white military officer and two subordinate officers who are black in two opposing sides and begin jousting and battling. After the mock battle, the presiding officer stuffs money in the pockets of the two black subordinates. The film has reenacted an expedited history of colonialism. It’s on the nose and deliberate but it sets the particular tone of Oh, Sun, which is one of playful anarchistic satire in the guise of a docudrama. Plus it’s better than a dumb title card.
As we follow the travels of our protagonist through the streets of Paris, the tone shifts. By escaping colonialist oppression he’s now immersed in cultural oppression.
With employment scarce and opportunities for economic ascension nonexistent, our expat becomes the token object of curious white women and objectified by passers-by.
It’s the emblem of racial condescension that was just as prevalent 50 years ago as it is today, pandering and condescension through the guise of naivety and ignorance when it’s just plain old racism. Hondo’s direction manages a varying deck of avant-garde aesthetics. He flirts with verite pragmatism while utilizing jokey visual gags that veer on the surreal. It’s an amalgam that’s both daring and intelligent.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: The list of films referenced at the beginning of the critique all have one thing common/ They’re all featured in The Criterion Collection. This film’s practical invisibility on home video and consistency with the movies in Criterion’s catalog stand as solid qualifiers but the more substantial one is that Oh, Sun is one of the titles that’s being (or “has been”) restored thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Back when Sembene’s Black Girl (CP#41) was an entry for this column, it was thought that it might be featured in a World Cinema Project set but the movie is a deservedly popular standalone title. Oh, Sun could be one or the other. Either way, it’s deserving of a spine number.