Senegal Village Review

AKA: Senegal Village: A Tale of A Black City
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2018
Distributor: Movementism
Origin: USA
Running Time: 16 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The X Factor [Heru Kamene Documentary], Hate Crimes in the Heartland, Unjust Perceptions: Ethiopia, The Innerground Railroad, Making It Happen: Masters of Invention
-Senegal Village is available to stream on YouTube.
Fun Facts:
-This is the first short documentary from Movementism involving father/son team Professor Kaba Kamene and Heru “Neset” Kamene.

-In 2011, archaeologists were able to fill 250 bags worth of artifacts from the people who lived in Senegal/Seneca Village. Some of the things they found were wall deposits and toothbrush handles of all things.

-Before Prof. Kamene worked in education, he actually worked in radio and broadcasting in Gary, Indiana. Oddly enough, he also started teaching in that city and was qualified due to his having a college degree.

This Black History Month film review project has been informative as well as fascinating of sorts covering various films and documentaries. I’m certainly no stranger to historical documentaries since I have an appreciation for learning about history. Since starting Iridium Eye, I felt obligated to find out about documentaries involving historical moments I didn’t learn about in school. One could certainly argue that Hate Crimes In the Heartland was a catalyst and watershed moment with how I wanted to know more as well as giving my thoughts on these particular documentaries that should be more known (more so about the events they cover). Much like that aforementioned documentary, what I’m about to review involves an African-American-owned town.

Instead of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we’re going to talk about a settlement that was in Manhattan, New York of all places, but people may know that part of the Big Apple with its current location of Central Park.

Senegal Village is a documentary where New York City-based educator Prof. Kaba Hiawatha Kamene goes to Central Park to pay respects to this former 19th-century Black-owned village. He stands in front of the plaque in the middle of the park and people may know the settlement as Seneca Village. However, that wasn’t the original name of the place. Prof. Kamene brings up multiple points that it was originally called Senegal Village? Why the name? There have been points of this village being owned by freed slaves and some of them remember being from Senegal or at the very least know they were of Senegalese descent. The other piece of logic was how this parcel of land was bought by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the name would be an homage to that West African nation as well as that country playing a big role in African civilization (sadly, there were Senegalese who were affected by the transatlantic slave trade given its coastal location). Prof. Kamene talks about the hidden history of this Black town in New York City as well as how the residents had their own churches, and businesses, could fish, farm, and even had their own school. One of the churches was even an early integrated space with Black congregation members as well as German and Irish immigrants. Unfortunately in 1857, Senegal Village would be razed due to eminent domain, and the residents were forced out of their homes to make way for what would eventually be Central Park. These obscured stories of the naming origins, how the residents lived, and what life was like in this part of Manhattan are brought to light as there has been a revival to learn about this village built by freed slaves.

This was quite an educational experience. I had heard the name Seneca Village in passing before and knew it was somewhere in New York City, but I was completely unaware of the deep history of this former settlement. When I saw the name “Senegal” instead of “Seneca”, I did raise my eyebrow at first, but things eventually made sense. Why would a Black-built village especially one tied to a religious institution known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (or AME Church for short) name something after a Native American tribe or even after a different city in Upstate New York? I had a tough time arguing with those points and since this was founded by freed slaves, it’s quite plausible that some Senegalese built and lived there since I know that country was definitely affected by the slave trade. Whether some of them knew if they were Senegalese or not would be irrelevant. I know I’m repeating myself from the last review I wrote involving the Kamenes with The X Factor, Prof. Kamene really has a way of educating the audience with the right amount of passion while still being approachable. Besides the historical points brought up, he even brings up his own personal connections that were tied to this former village. His father actually was brought up in the AME Zion Church in the city as well as being married in that same institution. The camera work was certainly crisp and well-shot to take in the images of the memorial, B-roll of passersby in Central Park, and there were some tastefully added maps as well as city plans for Senegal Village. The background music had some swell hip-hop instrumentals that added a nice ambiance and never overpowered the message. Even mainstream media started to talk about this village from time to time (okay, they do mostly call it Seneca Village, but that’s beside the point), so I’m glad there’s been interest in finding out more about his village. With that said, Prof. Kamene makes the point that people need to tell their own stories instead of waiting for people outside to tell them, so I thought that was a good touch.

The Senegal Village documentary could’ve been tweaked in different ways. I’m certainly not going to mark anything due to the educational content because there were so many nuggets of information that were presented in only sixteen minutes. The shot composition was clear and crisp, but a giant bulk of the documentary revolves around three long-take interview shots and Prof. Kamene is near the plaque in all of them. The first main shot was a medium close-up where one sees the plaque in the background. The second was a close-up talking headshot of the professor and the final major shot was taken at a different angle as he reads the inscriptions on the memorial. I thought the filming style could’ve been diversified with more pictures or Prof. Kamene walking around different parts of the former settlement. The X Factor at least gave multiple locales in addition to the green screen effects in the interviews, so I thought that more of a variety of filming angles and locations wouldn’t have been distracting. This is more of a personal opinion of mine, but I think it would’ve been fascinating if Prof. Kamene or Heru would’ve walked around Central Park and asked some people what they knew about Senegal Village. Whatever answers they could’ve gotten could’ve added to some of the points mentioned especially with the fact that not many people know about this history including New Yorkers themselves. It could’ve been a minute-long montage, but it would be enough to change things up a bit while still being on point. Another point that would’ve made this stronger would be talking to some families who descended from the people who lived in the village. I think that would’ve been an excellent touch by contacting people who have a connection to Senegal Village. There are great things about this documentary, but parts of the production and presentation felt limited.

Senegal Village is a worthy documentary covering a lesser-known part of Black History in America. The level of knowledge and history presented is very impressive and Prof. Kamene brings up evidence and logic to show how things worked when that settlement existed. The soundtrack was quite pleasant. I do wish there would’ve been some extra interviews with different people and more camera angles used for the presentation. Senegal Village is a good watch and I certainly learned things about this former Black-owned village.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like history documentaries.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want lots of interview subjects in your documentaries.

-Top-notch research and knowledge on display
-Good ambient hip-hop soundtrack
-Intriguing personal stories that add to the points presented

-Limited camera angles and locales
-Interviewing some people (especially those with connections to the village) was a missed opportunity
-Lack of some visual aids besides the map of Senegal or city planning maps

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Warning: Senegal Village is a tame documentary. There’s nothing offensive about it, but some harsher topics are presented such as slavery, racism, and gentrification. There’s fridge horror in this documentary when Prof. Kamene mentions that there were gravesites that are underneath parts of Central Park that were part of Senegal Village’s land.

-Curtis Monroe

All videos and photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Senegal Village is property of Movementism. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Movementism.

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