In 1944, Sembène was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs (a corps of the French Army) in World War II and later fought for the Free French Forces. After the war he returned to his home country, and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God's Bits of Wood.
Late in 1947, he stowed away to France, where he worked at a Citroën factory in Paris and then on the docks at Marseille, becoming active in the French trade union movement. He joined the communist-led CGT and the Communist party, helping lead a strike to hinder the shipment of weapons for the French colonial war in Vietnam. During this time, he discovered writers such as Claude McKay and Jacques Roumain.
Sembène drew on many of these experiences for his French-language first novel, Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker, 1956), the story of Diaw, an African stevedore who faces racism and mistreatment on the docks at Marseille. Diaw writes a novel, which is later stolen by a white woman and published under her name; he confronts her, accidentally kills her, and is tried and executed in scenes highly reminiscent of Albert Camus's The Stranger. Though the book focuses particularly on the mistreatment of African immigrants, Sembène also details the oppression of Arab and Spanish workers, making it clear that the issues are as much economic as they are racial. Like most of his fiction, it is written in a social realist mode. Many critics today consider the book somewhat flawed; however, it began Sembène's literary reputation and provided him with the financial support to continue writing.
Sembène's second novel, O Pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh country, my beautiful people!, 1957), tells the story of Oumar, an ambitious black farmer returning to his native Casamance with a new white wife and ideas for modernizing the area's agricultural practices. However, Oumar struggles against both the white colonial government and the village social order, and is eventually murdered. O Pays, mon beau peuple! was an international success, giving Sembène invitations from around the world, particularly from Communist countries such as China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Sembène had the opportunity to study filmmaking for a year at Gorki Studios.
Sembène's third and most famous novel is Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood, 1960); most critics consider it his masterpiece, rivaled only by Xala. The novel fictionalizes the real-life story of a railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line that lasted from 1947 to 1948. Though the charismatic and brilliant union spokesman, Ibrahima Bakayoko, is the most central figure, the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights. Accordingly, the novel features nearly fifty characters in both Senegal and neighboring Mali, showing the strike from all possible angles; in this, the novel is often compared to Émile Zola's Germinal.
Sembène followed Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu with the (1962) short fiction collection Voltaïque (Tribal Scars). The collection contains short stories, tales, and fables, including "La Noire de..." which he would later adapt into his first film. In 1964, he released l'Harmattan (The Harmattan), an epic novel about a referendum for independence in an African capital.
Sembène continued this theme with the 1973 novel Xala, the story of a El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a rich businessman struck by what he believes to be a curse of impotence ("xala" in Wolof) on the night of his wedding to his beautiful, young third wife. El Hadji grows obsessed with removing the curse through visits to marabouts, but only after losing most of his money and reputation does he discover the source to be the beggar who lives outside his offices, whom he wronged in acquiring his fortune.
Le Dernier de l’empire (The Last of the Empire, 1981), Sembène's last novel, depicts corruption and an eventual military coup in a newly independent African nation. His paired 1987 novellas Niiwam et Taaw (Niiwam and Taaw) continue to explore social and moral collapse in urban Senegal.
On the strength of Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu and Xala, Sembène is considered one of the leading figures in African postcolonial literature. However, a lack of English translation of many of his novels has hindered Sembène from achieving the same international popularity enjoyed by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
In 1963, Sembène produced his first film, a short called "Barom Sarret" (The Wagoner). In '64 he made another short entitled Niaye. In 1966 he produced his first feature fim, La Noire de..., based on one of his own short stories; it was the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. Though only 60 minutes long, the French-language film won the Prix Jean Vigo, bringing immediate international attention to both African film generally and Sembène specifically. Sembène followed this success with the 1968 Mandabi, achieving his dream of producing a film in his native Wolof. Later Wolof-language films include Xala (1975, based on his own novel), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), and Guelwaar (1992). The Senegalese release of Ceddo was heavily censored, ostensibly for a problem with Sembène's paperwork, but more probably for its anti-Muslim themes. However, Sembène distributed fliers at theaters describing the censored scenes and released it uncut for the international market. In 1971, Sembène also made a film in the Diola language and French entitled Emitai.
His final film, the 2004 feature Moolaadé, won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The film, set in a small African village in Burkina Faso, explored the controversial subject of female genital mutilation.
Seipati Bulane Hopa, Secretary General of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) described Sembène as "a luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light...a voice that spoke without hesitation, a man with an impeccable talent who unwaveringly held on to his artistic principles and did that with great integrity and dignity."
South Africa's Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture, went further in eulogizing Sembène as "a well rounded intellectual and an exceptionally cultured humanist...an informed social critic [who] provided the world with an alternative knowledge of Africa."
On the film « de Moolaadé » :