He is usually called the greatest of all African filmmakers, but this is really an insult. Not because the ranks of great African filmmakers is small, but because Sembene certainly ranks with the great filmmakers of all time. A resolute socialist, a son of the working class and the colonial systemâ€”which both shaped his worklife (and life) and ironically provided him the means to succeed as an artistâ€”he was originally a novelist and short story writer. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of his fiction. It was his concern that his writing would not be widely read (in Africa) that caused him to turn to filmmaking when he was 40.
His first film, Black Girl, an unsparing portrait of a Senegalese girl who is brought to France to work. is notable for its formal elegance and very Senegalese point of view, though it looks like a French film.
His later films can be much funnier, even when dealing with serious themes. I think Guelwaar, the story of a doomed Muslim funeral, is his masterpiece, but others claim similar honors for Xala (a businessman has his mojo stolen and cannot consummate his third marriage), Faat-Kine (a comedy about a woman succeeding in business), and Moolaade (which I haven’t seen, about female genital cutting).
I suggest starting with Guelwaar, in which you’ll discover a wonderful artist with an expansive view of people, politics and the way these things collide, who is working at the top of his game.