The most robust big-screen heroine around gives her name to the rapturously engaging Faat-Kine, tonight's entry in Johns Hopkins' winter film series "The African Diaspora II." (It screens at 7:15 p.m. at the Preclinical Teaching Building, Mountcastle Auditorium, 725 N. Wolfe St. Admission is free.)
A single mother of two educated children, Kine manages a Dakar, Senegal, gas station with unbeatable aplomb, wielding a bicycle horn with a rubber bulb like a combination intercom and scepter. She dispenses justice and knowledge directly, whether pepper spraying a woman who accosts and insults her or advising a pal who has married a polygamous man to demand he use a condom.
Few movies -- or, for that matter, few plays or novels or TV shows -- have celebrated the virtues of a self-made businesswoman so unabashedly and fully. Kine refuses to loan her own money to men who are bad risks or to borrow from a bank at exorbitant rates; she coolly faces down a customer trying to pass off phony bills. To say she never flinches is an understatement: She exults in her strength and ability.
Yet the movie's legendary director, Ousmane Sembene, and his ebullient star, Venus Seye, never leave you feeling that all Kine has to offer is inspired practicality. She balances brusqueness and sympathy. She buys a wheelchair for a street friend, berates him as a liar when he says it has been stolen, and consoles him when he turns out to be telling the truth.
Kine was on her way into the professional ranks when one of her college teachers impregnated her and her education ceased. Her second child's father, a pretentious Francophile, took her money and was jailed for fraud before they could marry. With the help of her mother -- who shielded her when her morally outraged father tried to burn her alive -- Kine has raised her daughter and son to be proud, non-sexist and devoted to their native land.
Kine's story ripples into a vision of a serene Senegal, accommodating French language and African pride, Islam and Christianity, some atavistic customs and beliefs and a whole lot of enlightenment. In his late 70s, the old master Sembene has made a sublimely optimistic movie; in its own modest, leisurely fashion, it sets off titanic good vibes.