Michel Ocelot’s ‘The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess’: clichés on screen

By Mabrouck Rachedi
Posted on Friday, 28 October 2022 11:41

Image from the film "The Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess". © Diaphana Films

With his new animated film, Michel Ocelot, the director of 'Kirikou and the Sorceress', offers a work of great beauty weakened by the stereotypes it disseminates.

When Kirikou and the Sorceress was released in 1998, it was a small revolution in French cinema. The animated film is set in Africa, with African heroes. The result: a box-office hit, multiple awards and two successful sequels. Azur and Azmar and Dilili in Paris then confirmed the art of storytelling, poetry and travel that runs through Michel Ocelot’s work.

Three tales

In The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess, the French screenwriter and director’s touch is evident. Just like in Kirikou and The Wild Beasts and Kirikou and the Men and Women, the film is divided into independent tales. The first one takes place in ancient Egypt; Tanouekamani must become a pharaoh to marry Nasalsa, the woman he loves.

The second, set in Auvergne in the Middle Ages, involves a boy sentenced to death by his father for freeing a prisoner. Spared by his executioners, he grows up in the forest and becomes the Handsome Savage, a defender of the people. In the third, the prince of an 18th-century Turkish palace escapes death. He distinguishes himself as a doughnut seller and wins the heart of the Rose Princess.

Aïssa Maïga’s voice… and a few stereotypes

The common thread between these three stories is a woman, whose voice is interpreted by Aïssa Maïga, who tells them to a captivated audience. The struggle for justice against the powerful, the desire for emancipation, and love stronger than the constraints against it are the common messages of the three plots. Humanistic themes… that leave us wanting more.

Gender stereotypes are omnipresent in the three tales. Nasalsa, a young princess, remains passive while the handsome Tanouekamani must conquer a country for her. She could not have decided to run away with him – that would have been too easy.

Poster for the film “The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess” ©Diaphana Films

The daughter of the mediaeval prisoner is only portrayed as a lover who waits for her man while singing. The Rose Princess is more active, even if she entrusts the man who calls himself the “Doughnut Prince” with the task of devising a plan for them to meet. The traditional role of the princesses in the old tales remains: the women are flowers waiting to be plucked.

Old-fashioned romanticism

The vision of love is also charged with old-fashioned romanticism. [Physical] beauty seems to be the only criterion that brings together people who can be in love without having seen each other. The Rose Princess haunts the mind of the Doughnut Prince without anyone having seen her and he obviously falls in love with her at first sight. It is symptomatic that the savage, a kind of Robin Hood who robs the rich lord to redistribute to the poor people, is called the “Handsome” Savage and not the “Good” Savage.

Image from the film “The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess” ©Diaphana Films

The qualities of the soul seem secondary to aesthetic considerations. Heroes rhyme with handsome and the canons of beauty are those from magazines: being thin, having muscles. Strangely enough, characters with rounded shapes are mean or ridiculous: Nasalsa’s mother, the vizier of the Turkish palace, the tax collector from the Middle Ages…

Blue-blooded providential men

The social message of the struggle against the powerful is itself open to question. The people, always in the background, are just as passive as the princesses. They wait to be liberated by heroes, who happen to be princes.

Tanouekamani’s army of soldiers blindly follows him in a war that is motivated only by selfishness, and if they liberate the poor oppressed people of Egypt without a fight, it is because the prince has decided to do so at the last moment. The same pattern is found in the other two tales. And every time, it’s blue blood that flows in the veins of the providential man.

One of the salutary changes brought about by Kirikou was that the voices were interpreted by African actors or actors of African origin. Recall that during the 2020 Césars ceremony, Aïssa Maïga ironically counted the number of Black people in the room. From the names in the credits, it does not appear that there were many Egyptian or Turkish actors in the dubbing studio. One can question whether an Egyptian or a Turkish character must necessarily be interpreted by an actor with those origins. But then we should also ask whether foreign actors were employed to interpret the characters from Auvergne.

Michel Ocelot was a pioneer with Kirikou. But in the post #MeToo era, where gender stereotypes are being questioned more than ever, in this period of social demands where the voice of the people is being heard, his humanist message is plagued by clichés of outdated romanticism.

While Disney shakes up the imagination with The Little Mermaid, starring a Black leading actress, the director who was ahead of his time in the representation of diversity now seems firmly behind.

The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess, an animated film by Michel Ocelot, was released in France on 19 October 2022.

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