African · Criterion Collection · Drama

#852 Black Girl (1966)


#852 Black Girl

1966 // Senegal, France // Ousmane Sembène

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Cinema is more than a hundred years old now, it has been used as a propaganda tools, representative voices of the oppressed and the minority, or simply as an escapist entertainment. Beyond the functionality, cinema also represents a nationality or a continuation of anthropology. Cinema, arts it is, should never be limited to a single form, confined by a language nor ideology. Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, often regarded as the “father of African film”, acted as a pioneer in not only bringing the camera to the marginalized territory and conveying voices that had been ignored for centuries, but also setting an indelible example for the forthcoming generations of African filmmakers.

Sembène’s breakout debut feature in 1966, Black Girl, brought his post-colonized country to the forefront of world cinema. The film title in French is La Noire de…, which literally translated as “black girl of…” or “black girl from…”. It yielded an ambiguity of the nature of our protagonist as either an object of possession or a human associated to a particular location. The film was adapted from a short story written by Sembène himself, which was inspired by a short newspaper article concerning a suicide of a black girl in her employer’s house in France. Sembène took the liberty to expand the story and speculate the underneath psychology and social issues in favor of his political ideology.

The film opens with the arrival of a black girl Diouana (M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, a dressmaker initially before being hired by Sembène, unsurprisingly she wore her self-made fashionable dresses in the film) by a sea liner from Dakar to France. She previously worked as a nanny in Senegal for the French couple, and later was invited by the them to France expecting to do the same work. After being warmly received by the Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) in the pier, she begun her unanticipated and humiliating mundane works as a domestic servant. Even though without physical restraints, she was literally imprisoned in the couple’s apartment, not allowed to visit places she once dreamed of visiting while she was in Senegal. As Diouana’s distressed voice-over said, “For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom”.

The fact that the Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) was an infuriating employer and a racist constantly tormented Diouana. The mindset of supremacy in colonization was undeniably observable, Diouana was treated as an object of possession, a slave under order, or an exotic attraction. She didn’t speak French (even though she understood French “instinctively” as observed by the guests of the house owners, and intriguingly her voice-over was dubbed in French as well), she had no acquaintance in France, predictably as a result she was depressed. Sembène utilized a traditional African mask Diouana given to her employer as a present which was later hung on the wall of the the apartment in France as the symbol of the African’s origin, the African’s god, their ancestors, and hence their identity.

In the final confrontation, Diouana intended to take back the mask from the hands of Madame,  allegorically an attempt to regain her loss identity (fighting for independence against colonization) and her dignity of being African (national pride). After her suicide, the ostensibly amiable but ultimately ineffectual Monsieur bought back Diouana’s belonging, including the mask, back to Dakar. The mask was at the end back to a African boy, who literally and figuratively chased away the Frenchman by wearing the mask. It was the sign of rebellion, the spirit of independence illustrated by the man with utter courage and insightfulness for his fellow countrymen via the visual means called cinema. And Sembène never turned back from there.

Film Rating: 4/5

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