Sembène was born in 1923 in Casamance, in southern Senegal. Expelled from school in the sixth grade, he was, at age 14, sent to Dakar where, while working as a laborer, he discovered literature, comic books and the movies. In 1944, Sembène was drafted into the French army, an experience that broadened his horizons, deepened his understanding of colonization and served as the basis for his feature films Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye. After World War II, Sembène moved to Marseilles, where he found employment as a dockworker (a story he fictionalized in his novel Black Docker) and soon became a forceful spokesperson within the radical arts and political movements of the region. A reader who studied Marx, Neruda, Jack London, Birago Diop, Richard Wright and Hemingway, the self-taught Sembène published his first poem in 1956 and before returning to Africa in 1960 published three successful novels. During a 1961 tour of Africa, then exploding with revolutionary fervor, creative possibility and post-colonial backlash, this laborer-turned-writer recognized that African people could not be effectively reached through written literature in any language. Cinema, however, could tell the essential stories of Africa to the African people. Sembène chose to devote his energies to creating emancipating and restorative images for the African people. He enrolled in a filmmaking program at Moscow's Gorki Studios, returned to Dakar with a Soviet camera and, in 1963, premiered the short Borom Sarret in 1963, a film that transformed Africa from a continent of media consumers into one with the potential to produce them. This was no historical accident; throughout the next 40 years, Sembène remained keenly aware of his entwined roles as artist and revolutionary, working tirelessly to create powerful works infused with his deep sense of social responsibility.
After his first, award-winning feature Noire de … La (Black Girl, 1966), Sembène began building the literary and cinematographic legacy that today situates him the "father" of African films. Sembène was among the first filmmakers to "indigenize" cinema, forgoing Hollywood-style moviemaking for African narrative structures and aesthetics. He created his own production company, working independently of the European system that continues to dictate filmmaking practice in Africa today. Made under impossible circumstances using limited resources, Sembene's works, including Faat Kine and Guelwaar, won awards at festivals in Venice, Moscow, Los Angeles and Karlovy Vary. All of his feature films have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese and Chinese. "Africa is my audience," he said, "while the West is my market." Sembène's introduction of genuinely African film aesthetics informed cinematic practice both in Africa and around the world, offering inspiration for other marginalized societies, whose members began to pick up cameras and tell their own stories. Sembene's career culminated with Moolaade, an award-winner at the 2004 Cannes film festival. In addition to his film work, Sembène was one of Africa's most prolific and recognized writers, with seven of his ten published literary works, including God's Bits of Wood, translated into English and included in the curricula of high schools and universities throughout Africa. His literary and cinematic output leaves Sembène as perhaps the most important cultural figure of 20th-century Africa, a folk hero and contemporary artist who, more than any other, succeeded both in capturing the complexities of African culture and in looking forward to a more equitable society, and his 50 years of creative output blazed trail for generations of African, African-American and African-European writers, filmmakers and scholars. "We will never be Arabs or Europeans," Sembène said. "We are African."