Grigris: A Story of An African Hustler

By Loi Awat,

Grigris is the true story of Souleyman Dèmé, alias Grigris: a hustler in post-colonial
Africa, a daring and authentic young man. Even with one crooked leg, Grigris is a
popular dancer in a nightclub and earns some extra money from his fans’ tips. Mimi, a beautiful half-French half-Chadian woman stops over to have her picture taken. She introduces herself as a model, but Grigris later sees her in the nightclub with a middleaged white man – testament that she is really a prostitute. While he falls under Mimi’s enchantment, the dancer’s stepfather is in hospital. Grigris eventually hatches a scheme to pay his step-father’s bills, and it lands him and Mimi on the wrong side of Moussa and the bandits.

The film takes us across modern Africa – from the city to the village – and breaks several ‘movie traditions’ along the way. For one, there are no good guys in this movie. Grigris himself, for a start, is not necessarily a likeable man. He lies to Moussa that he can swim when he cannot – and he swears by the Qur’an when he is clearly lying. He introduces himself as Mimi’s husband with no consultation whatsoever (I would be irked by that!) and pulls her into his scheme, placing her in Muossa’s line of fire without a first having a plan. He is, often times, an irritating guy – and this makes him more relatable than many movie characters. Grigris digs himself into a deep pit with no idea how he will get out of it.

He’s not strong or smart, and yet he manages to make us root for him. He does the wrong things, and we get him still – he is a human character, familiar in his introversion and approachable in his flaws. The character’s humanity is likely based on the fact that the movie is inspired by the true story of Souleyman Dèmé – and that he plays himself in the movie. It is either way a refreshing aspect, and makes him not only a character you can relate to but also a familiar person.

Another movie tradition that was broken in Grigris is the ‘damselification’ of women. This term (which I picked up from Hollywood screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) refers to the ‘damsel in distress’ pattern. The writers noted that women in movies tend to be reduced to damsels in distress only to be saved by their male counterparts, without driving the story. Grigis allows African women on screen to be who they are in real life: from the beautiful prostitute who gets drunk and tussles with older white men in the city to the village woman with 4 children who stands in solidarity with other women in times of trouble. The women eventually save Grigris’ life – a climactic moment not only in the movie, but also for me as an African woman. In a most beautiful sequence, Grigris is captured by one of Moussa’s bandits and held at gunpoint. Cries and ululations immediately erupt in the village, as the women alert each other of the dangerand call each other to action – and out of their huts they rush, each one with a crude weapon, to aid the man. The women arise! They fight, and they win against a bad guy with a gun!

With their ululations and crude weapons, these characters embody the spirit of the
African woman as she rises in defense of her home. Grigris is the story of a young
dancer-turned-criminal-turned-family-man. It captures Africa beautifully, and tells the story of her people accurately and with no apologies. The different characters in this movie will appeal to different people in different ways and in the end, Grigris is the type of movie which sends an unalike message to each person that watches it. On my part, I take from this movie a fond appreciation of African women in all their different forms, shapes and contexts.

Watch Grigris on Buni+


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