Review of Kemtiyu, Cheikh Anta

With a dialogue track in French and Wolof, with English subtitles, and an original score composed by jazz musician Randy Weston, Ousmane William Mbaye’s biographical documentary on the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop is not only well shot and edited, but is most useful historically and educationally.

While Mbaye is also responsible for writing the text, the credits do not acknowledge the name of the person speaking it. This documentary urges viewers to reflect on the boundaries between science and history, geography and identity, political context and intellectual research. One of the sons of Cheikh Anta Diop, Mr. Cheikh Mbacké Diop, serves as scientific advisor. Thanks to a plethora of historical material such as photographs, newspaper headlines, and archival footage, Laurence Attali’s editing links the present to the past within a trajectory easy to follow, but also unpredictable enough to keep the viewer’s attention.

Since this documentary is very much a Senegalese project, much attention is devoted to the little-known locations of Cheikh Anta Diop’s early education. We also get an external view of the university in Dakar, dedicated to the famous scholar, whose memory is also preserved through the name of a major avenue running along Cheikh Anta Diop University. On the whole, Mbaye’s biography becomes a journey in space and time that captures the meaningful details of growing up in a state of constant subordination.

Born in 1923, Diop is such a brilliant student that he completes his baccalaureate degree much earlier than his peers, specializing in philosophy and mathematics. In 1946, he enrolls at the Sorbonne where he studies with philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard and anthropologist Marcel Griaule.

A participant in the very first demonstrations against French colonial rule in Africa and Indochina, Diop further specializes in chemistry by working in the prestigious laboratory of Nobel Prize winner Frédéric Joliot-Curie. During the forties and the fifties, chemistry was taught with physics, so Diop translates Einstein’s theory of relativity into the Wolof language of Senegal. Thus, he pioneers an example of cross-cultural dialogue and mutual respect against the French colonial stereotype of the uneducated African.

After multiple rejections of his doctoral thesis, due to its anti-colonial slant, he finally receives his doctoral degree. Book after book, conference after conference, in Dakar and in Cairo, in Guadaloupe and in the United Sates, in Niger and Cameroun, Diop becomes a world-wide, yet controversial celebrity whom UNESCO charges with major responsibilities as far as developing the African intellectual discourse for the rest of the world.

During a 1985 television interview conducted in Atlanta, GA, which Mbaye’s documentary includes in a shortened form, Diop illustrates his Darwinian evolutionary argument. His views underline natural selection, adaptation at the level of skin color, geographical, climatic, and immigration variables. His thesis unfolds according to a few major points.

First, the regions of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are the cradle of the first six proto-human specimens; second, since these proto-humans appear near or below the Equator, their skin color is characterized by a high content of melanin. In fact, such pigmentation is nature’s way to guarantee protection from the sun. More specifically, the brain mass of the first three specimens is undeveloped, and they eventually disappear. Likewise, the fourth and the fifth specimens do not survive. Only the sixth phenotype is fully human like us, capable of art, thought, and language.

This black Homo sapiens moves out of Africa into Europe. During this stage, the European climate is so cold that the original black pigmentation does not stay on. A skin-color mutation slowly takes place. The concept of race, therefore, emerges much later on, in response to vastly different temperatures and scattered geographical settlements.

Diop is not only an anthropologist and a scientist, but also an Egyptologist, to the extent that he uses Egypt as a linguistic case study to demonstrate etymological similarities between modern Wolof and the ancient hieroglyphs. The title of the documentary, Kemtiyu, means black in ancient Egyptian and in today’s Wolof.

Once he returns to Senegal in 1960, the scientist spends the rest of his life measuring the melanin content of Egyptian mummies. The point of it all is to assess the climatic conditions of Egypt. This region bears witness to the first developments in the exact sciences with the mathematics necessary for the construction of the Pyramids. Diop’s use of the so-called Carbon 14 method proves that the ancient Egyptians had a dark skin coloring.

Carbon 14, or “radio-active dating,” is a method of age determination. It is applicable to the biology of melanin, which also relates to the carbon cycle of plants, animals, and humans. Due to his daring proposition that prehistoric Africa, instead of ancient Greece, witnesses the origins of humankind, Diop battles all his life against Eurocentric arguments. He dies of a heart attack in 1986, possibly provoked by physical exhaustion.

Overall, Mbaye’s documentary demonstrates that Diop’s work is much more complex than it may have seemed previously. In contrast to Aimé Césaire’s and Frantz Fanon’s better-known writings, this interdisciplinary scholar has not received the full attention he deserves in the post-colonial classroom.

Without relying on a celebratory approach, Mbaye leaves enough room for viewers to reflect on their own, as they evaluate interviews conducted with members of the Diop family, friends, colleagues, and one of his opponents, the biological anthropologist Alain Froment. This specialist, at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, rejects Diop’s arguments and prefers to rely on notions of national and racial purity through biometric evidence.

Whatever the case may be, the fact is that humankind’s origins continue to be a deeply contested topic even today, and nobody knows the whole story for sure. Diop’s worldwide legacy reminds the viewer that science is not always infallible and objective; its conclusions change over time, and research findings can be influenced by cultural biases.

Diop’s story is an example of intellectual courage. Passionate about his topic, he asks new questions by denouncing the ways in which nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialism still impact European science. Diop’s ideas still struggle for recognition, yet they also inspire new generations of educators and students. One emerges from all the material presented with the distinct feeling that Diop’s contribution deserves reevaluation in light of the most recent anthropological discoveries. Periodically discussed in the media, the origins of humankind are constantly contested, regardless of whether or not they are pigeonholed into racial camps.

Although the overall tone of Mbaye’s documentary is explanatory, one poetic sequence stands out: a large flock of small birds sits in an orderly fashion, like a diligent classroom, on the telephone wires of an urban environment. Later on, we see one vulture flying alone in the sky. Were one to associate this flock of birds with Diop’s disciples today, one would also have to acknowledge that this avian iconography makes its point subtly and effectively. Even if he spends most of his life stretching his wings and flying above the intersection of several disciplines, Diop has many followers who come together and admire his exploration of broader horizons.

In the end, Mbaye’s documentary tells the story of someone who paid a high personal price to rewrite singlehandedly the entire intellectual history of a whole continent. Significantly, the horizontality and stability of Mbaye’s opening long take clashes with the dangerous verticality of Diop’s favorite childhood game. From one of the interviews, the viewer learns that this skinny boy knows how to trap a vulture. Then, after seemingly releasing his prey, he hangs off the bird’s feet for a short thrilling ride in the air. Early on, Diop is an overachiever who has his future path outlined in front of his eyes: he knows he would soar high. Most importantly, he does so above the rules of a game based on oppression, which eventually catches up with him and makes his international career difficult.

Citation: Angela Dalle Vacche, “Review of Kemtiyu, Cheikh Anta,” a documentary directed by Ousmane William Mbaye, African Studies Review, December 2017, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp. 268-271.

Featured Director

Ousmane William Mbaye

Born in Paris in 1952, Ousmane William Mbaye is the son of the famous woman of culture, Annette Mbaye of Erneville. Mbaye trained at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français and studied at the University of Paris VIII Vincennes and went on to make films in Senegal. From 1990 to 1997, he coordinated the Rencontres Cinématographiques of Dakar (RECIDAK). Learn More

About the Author

Angela Dalle Vacche

Angela Dalle Vacche is a Professor at The Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, where she teaches African films. She is currently developing two essays: one on nonprofessional children actors in Francophone West African films; and another one on The Statues Also Die (1953), a documentary by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais on African art, commissioned by the journal Présence Africaine in 1950. She is also finishing a book titled André Bazin’s Film Theory: Art, Science, Religion. Learn More