Let's begin with the plot: A young and strong Senegalese fisherman, Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), is hired by some Dakar businessmen to transport 30 black Africans to Europe. The trip takes seven days. The ship is big but is by no means big enough to guarantee anything like a safe journey across a major body of water. One of the passengers has a mental breakdown almost immediately after the ship leaves the coast of Africa. Another passenger has dreams of becoming a musician in Paris. Another passenger hopes to get a new leg in Spain (he lost his real one in a boat accident). Another passenger wants to be just like his brother, who has his papers in order and is doing well as a mechanic in Spain. This is a ship filled with dreams that can be easily dashed by the powerful waves and storms of the Atlantic Ocean. The film's ending, like much of its plot, will not surprise anyone. Dreams like these are meant to be broken.
But if the plot is unoriginal, what makes Moussa Touré's The Pirogue such a great movie? The details. One such detail: Near the beginning of the film, just before the fisherman leaves his compound, his wife, and his world for a journey into the unknown, he takes an egg out of his bag, throws it on the dusty ground, it smashes, and he carefully walks over the little mess, turns, looks back at his wife, gives her the eyes of fate, and leaves. Another detail: The sexual foreplay of the fisherman and his wife is all about hands (hands caressing shoulders, face, head, hair). There is no kissing, no fingering, no jabbing, but the kind of sensitive hands a blind person uses to get an impression of a person's face. These and many other details (the content of conversations, the preparation of foods, the linguistic and religious differences of the passengers) provide the surface that we always find in newspapers and TV reports (poor black bodies) with a depth that's rarely appreciated (black bodies that are rich in cultural information).