In the Hauntingly Intimate ‘Atlantics,’ What Capitalism Kills Can Never Die
The Netflix release, spoken primarily in the Wolof language, exists outside of a colonial gaze—but crucially, not outside of the violence of capitalism and corruption.
Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Senegalese and French director Mati Diop’s first feature film, might have also been titled The Dead Don’t Die, if that name wasn’t already taken. For the film, in its vision of what it could mean to fight against the forces of the state and capital, is not just a ghost movie but a zombie movie in which those presumed and left for dead rise once more to eat—so to speak—the rich. The fallen don’t simply pass through on their way to paradise, but insist on their place on Earth, seeking their vengeance as a cloudy-eyed collective.
The film has been nearly universally acclaimed by critics and has earned Diop a deluge of attention as a filmmaker—I don’t have much more to say that would further this rightful anointment, though I do have a small personal and historical stake in its glorious existence: Atlantics takes place in Dakar, Senegal, not far, as it happens, from where my father and uncles spent much of their childhoods in Banjul, Gambia. My great, great maternal grandmother emigrated to Banjul from Senegal, though I’m admittedly more of an African mix than any one thing: Gambian, Ghanaian, and Zambian, for starters. And according to the family history, my last name, the Portuguese da Costa, takes my paternal side back to the slave trade between Brazil and Sierra Leone.
Senegal, for its part—which is geographically hugged by the Gambia and shares many of its indigenous groups and languages with the country—was colonized by the French beginning in the mid-17th century, then briefly “captured” by the British and joined with Gambia into Senegambia in 1758, and then re-claimed by the French before the Senegalese people finally won independence in 1960. Many ghosts have passed through.
The Senegalese Socialist Party, which took over the country at the dawn of its independence, was in power for 40 years before growing pressure for a multi-party parliament led Abdoulaye Wade—an economist and Senegalese Democratic Party member who was educated in France and is married to a white French woman—to win the presidency in 2000. The British publication The Independent predictably called Wade’s victory at the time “a textbook display of democracy,” as it signaled a win for neoliberal ideology in Senegal. Wade left office in 2012, after seeking a third term, even though he ran on a platform of limiting presidencies to two five-year terms. Nearby, in the Gambia, from 1996, President Yahya Jammeh ruled effectively by dictatorship, embezzling government money, having his henchmen hunt down women he declared witches, and allegedly sexually assaulting at least one constituent. He fled the country in 2017 after over 20 years of rule, with much of his loot in tow.
So, fittingly, Atlantics, which is primarily in the Wolof language, is a film that exists outside of a colonial gaze but, crucially, not outside of the violence of capitalism and corruption. The only forces able to fight this corruption in the film are those that exist both beyond and through the characters: spirits, if you will. In a world in which the working poor are beaten down by oligarchs, armies, and police that may in fact resemble them and even come from their own communities, the magical realism in films like Atlantics, Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, and Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet offers a glittering panorama of visions for what revolution could look like.
But Atlantics doesn’t share insight purely through politics. The film begins with the young Souleiman and his fellow workers demanding 3 months of withheld pay, but like Happy As Lazzaro and Harriet, the narrative focuses on the feelings of love and connection that capitalism works to suppress. It’s a romance in which the couple, Ada and Souleiman, are driven by their love to fight and thwart authority, from swindling bosses to soulless rich husbands to property-protecting police.
Their love is spoken through Wolof, a language I grew up hearing in the playful, prodding phrases of childhood: “Stop running around tati neen,” naked, and “Naka nga def?”, How are you?, spoken as if in jest. The skeptical bent of Wolof intonations have always stood out to me, as that’s how elders will often address the young—as if you may be mistaken or guilty. But in the same breath as the interrogation is intimacy. Ada’s friend Dior, who runs the club and café where the lovers meet, makes it her business to talk sense to Ada with a mélange of authority and compassion. It was startling to watch a film, soon to be released on Netflix no less, that felt so familiar, so close.
Growing up, I thought the languages I sometimes heard my parents speak, Wolof and Bemba (from Zambia), only existed on our familial planet; we moved very often within the U.S. and felt so far from anyone else who both looked and spoke like us. Atlantics brings alive a language that has surely existed much longer than the French and Spanish and Portuguese I know and could learn in school, and has survived the encroachments of those other, standardized tongues. These resonances from beyond, in love and language, make Atlantics a film that is both of Senegal and for those who yearn for it—especially the Senegal Diop’s tenacious film seeks and demands.