Black Girl

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(Dir. Ousmane Sembène, France/Senegal, 1966)

Out of Africa

At one point during director Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature Black Girl, his protagonist muses that to her France is nothing more than the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom of the flat that enslaves her. The young woman from Senegal lives and works as a maid for a white bourgeois family, and she never sees more of the European country she’s always dreamed of visiting than the rooms she shuffles in and out of day after day. This beachside flat on the French Riviera is her private prison. Has there been a more unglamorous depiction of a nation so often romanticized in all of cinema? On the heels of a national movement that shaped the entire medium for generations to come (one decidedly marked by white filmmakers telling white stories of white characters and concerns), Sembène’s France is boldly filtered through the lens of a black foreigner.

It goes without saying that any French film released in the mid- to late-Sixties will welcome comparisons to the so-called New Wave, but aside from a shared social conscience in a contemporary setting, Sembène’s film represents a work with a distinctly African voice. (This is not to say, of course, that Sembène would shy away from his influences – the French title La Noire de… is an unmistakable reference to Max Ophüls’ best-known film.) And, it also marks the beginning of an exciting, decades-spanning career that helped jumpstart modern African cinema. It should come as no surprise, then, that a mid-twentieth century film hopping from Africa to Europe and then back again would be explicitly concerned with the aftereffects of colonialism on a ravaged continent.

And, make no mistake; Black Girl offers no subtle social critique. Its purpose is plain and its indictment pointedly scathing – but necessarily so. In simplest terms, Sembène’s film is about racism. And, there’s no dancing around a topic like post-colonial racism, especially when the hateful and harmful behavior on display here is this overt. The young Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) – at first determined and joyful – is completely drained of her humanity when she bravely leaves Senegal for France at the invitation of her unnamed white employers. Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) and Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) are cruel and uncaring in their treatment of the poor woman in their service. They frequently deny her requests to see the France outside the walls of their home, allow her no voice of her own (even when writing a letter to her own mother), and subject her to shocking acts of racism. In the film’s most egregious sequence, one of the couple’s dinner guests jumps up from the table to plant a kiss on Diouana’s cheek after claiming he had never kissed a black girl before. Later, Madame dismisses the man’s uninvited and degrading gesture as a lighthearted joke. Obviously, no one’s laughing.

And, while Diouana’s skin color is reason enough for her employers to treat her like a lower class human, she also serves as the embodiment of their condescending attitude toward Africa as a whole. The couple openly discusses how unsafe and uncivilized the continent has become in the aftermath of European reign with no regard for how these opinions might affect the young Senegalese woman living in their home. “We’re not in Africa!” Madame exclaims in one scene when she chides Diouana for sleeping in. The implication, of course, is that in Africa one might indulge in laziness or applaud a poor work ethic, but in Europe there’s no place for this type of carelessness. The couple’s total lack of cultural understanding that would clue them in to different perceptions of time (among other cultural signifiers) doesn’t, however, stop them from mindlessly consuming African culture. “Exotic” and “authentic” paintings and artifacts adorn the couple’s home in Senegal, and a tribal mask Diouana gifts them before joining them in France becomes one of the film’s major recurring images.

The mask, which later hangs on the white walls of the French flat, serves as the only remaining connection between Diouana and the home she left behind. It’s an artifact with no real meaning to these white folks, but when Diouana threatens to reclaim her heritage by snatching it off the wall, Madame aggressively stakes her own claim to an object that was never hers to begin with. Sembène creates a powerful visual metaphor in the image of the two women engaged in a war over control of the mask. Can Africa reclaim its land from white European dominance even in an era of supposed post-colonialism? Sembène’s film offers two answers. On the one hand, Black Girl tells the devastating story of one African woman crushed under the forces that oppress her. Tormented by the inhumane treatment she endures, Diouana slips into depression and tragically never sees her home again. Only in death can she escape.

And yet, the film’s finale suggests that Sembène has hope for the future of his people. Racked by guilt or fear, Diouana’s employer travels to Dakar to return the mask to the young woman’s mother and to offer her the wages her daughter never received. He throws money at a problem in the only way his privilege knows how. But, the pain of losing a loved one – just like the scars of colonialism that mar the face of Africa – cannot be easily alleviated by reparations. And, when Diouana’s mother dismisses her daughter’s callous employer, a local boy slips the returned mask over his face and follows the man out of the village. Increasingly paranoid over this living specter of an Africa he never understood, the man sprints past the throngs of locals until he reaches his car. The boy behind the mask ousts the white man and ensures that he’ll never return. Africa will be responsible for its own future, Sembène boldly asserts. Thus, Black Girl ends with a glimmer of hope. Diouana may fall victim to the oppression inflicted upon her and other Africans, but for her people the future may still be bright.

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