The Slave Ship Musical You Never Knew Existed

It’s safe to say that the Mauritanian French director Med Hondo’s “West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty” is a unique film. That might be the only safe thing about it.

The first African movie musical, it traces nearly four centuries of French colonialism with unsparing clarity and relentless creativity, shot entirely on a replica of a slave ship built within an abandoned Citroën factory in Paris.

Since its wonky release in 1979, it has quietly built a group of devoted fans, including the Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who placed it at the top of his list of the greatest films of all time for Sight & Sound magazine in 2022. But a new 4K restoration and a weeklong run at Film Forum might finally land it in the wider canon.

That lack of recognition has been neither accidental nor surprising. When Hondo’s feature debut, “Soleil Ô,” a docudrama about Black immigrant life, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, it landed him at the vanguard of the still-nascent African cinema, but its subject matter made future financing difficult to secure. He raised money for “West Indies,” an adaptation of Daniel Boukman’s play “The Slavers,” through African private investors and a loan from Algeria’s public broadcasting organization; many cast members were his friends and worked without pay.

“When you watch his films, which speak truth to power in a very direct, albeit extremely artful, way, you can see why this is not a filmmaker who was widely accepted by the mainstream,” said Ashley Clark, the curatorial director of the Criterion Collection, a sister company of Janus Films, which is distributing the touring restoration.

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