Film Review: Black Girl

With 'Black Girl,' Ousmane Sembene crafts one of cinema’s finest portraits of African neocolonialism.
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Black Girl is the story of a young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who lives in Dakar, the country’s capital. It begins when she is invited to accompany her employers to France. In Dakar, Diouana cared for a French couple’s children, but upon her arrival in Antibes, in France, she is pressed into service as their maid. Late writer-director Ousmane Sembene’s original French title, La noire de… [The black girl of…], leaves blank her origins, speaking to the universality of Diouana’s experience. The movie, inspired by a brief news item, is both a portrait of one woman’s struggle against dehumanization and a sublime allegory for the victimization of all colonized people.

Sembene’s black and white feature debut was shot entirely on location in Dakar and was released in 1966, six years after Senegal declared its independence from France. Janus Films is releasing a luminous restoration of the 65-minute version of the movie on Blu-ray; it is in the original aspect ratio (1.33) and languages, French and Wolof, with English subtitles. Black Girl was initially 70 minutes and included a brief color sequence of Diouana’s first glimpse of France, but Sembene cut it to meet that country’s licensing requirements. The film won France’s prestigious Prix Jean Vigo.

Black Girl is narrated by Diouana, whose thoughts are shared through internal monologue. In the movie’s opening shot, an ocean liner arrives on which she is a passenger. Diouana disembarks, a stunning beauty in a chic polka-dot dress and heels, having already anticipated the Western attire that will allow her to fit into her new home. (Diop was a seamstress in real life.) The one hint of vulnerability is the pair of white daisy earrings Diouana wears; signature 1960s-era jewelry, the daisy is nevertheless a symbol of innocence that underlines the “flowering” of Diouana’s youth.

A more prominent symbol in the film is the Dogon mask Diouana first gives her unnamed employers in a flashback to Dakar. That gift seals her fate, as it represents her initial, albeit unconscious, relinquishment of her tribal identity, glimpses of which we get in flashbacks throughout the movie. (Sembene appears in a flashback as the village “letter writer.”) The mask is added to the French couple’s collection of tribal art in their Dakar home, but it reappears in Antibes as a lone object on a wide expanse of white wall, so that the contrasting colors themselves in this black and white movie, the brown mask and its isolation in this white “world,” foreshadow Diouana’s isolation. The mask is exotic, as is Diouana, especially to Madame and Monsieur’s friends; the ownership of the object and the young woman confers status at home. 

Sembene, who was a widely published author in France before becoming a writer-director, attended a state-run film school in the Soviet Union and worked briefly at Moscow’s Gorki Film Studio. Before his feature debut, he made two shorts, one of which, 1963’s Borom Sarret (Wolof for The Cart Owner), will open theatrically along with Black Girl and is included on the Blu-ray release. Contemporary audiences may find it difficult to grasp the significance of the feature and its 18-minute companion, about a day in the life of an impoverished cart driver for hire, especially because of Sembene’s rather literary style at this point in his career. In comparison to his contemporaries in the French New Wave, his work appeared somewhat primitive, a fact that did not go unnoticed by critics when Black Girl screened at Cannes in 1966—although there was also a backlash against Sembene’s progressive Afrocentrism.

One technical shortcoming in Black Girl is the result of that era’s sound recording and synching techniques. Diouana’s internal voice was recorded in post by a French actress and lacks the tonality that might have signaled the early stages of her despondency. But this is a minor complaint. When one considers the depth and breadth of the movie’s mapping of the destruction of Diouana’s spirit, it is fair to say that Sembene may have been the first human rights filmmaker to depict the evils of colonialism from an African perspective. While his direction is somewhat intrusive (mostly felt in the persistent narration), Black Girl is filmed from the standpoint of Diouana; then and now, that is an unusual occurrence in Western narrative film.

As Black Girl unfolds, Diouana becomes increasingly alarmed that she is the only domestic, while in Dakar the couple had a larger staff. She is understandably resentful of being reduced to a maid. Diouana nevertheless dons her best clothing and perhaps her only dress, the one she arrived in. Madame chastises her for wearing heels, and Diouana takes them off. Then she is asked to cook for the French couple’s guests. During that meal, which she both prepares and serves, Diouana is eyed by one of the men and becomes a sexual object. Unlike in Dakar, no one speaks her native language. She is only permitted trips to the market, and because the couple do not pay her regular wages, Diouana cannot explore the “mother country” that she anticipated seeing before leaving Senegal. 

The indifference of Diouana’s employers is magnified by Madame’s remark to her husband that their maid is “wasting away.” The fact that the couple perceive Diouana’s decline and yet fail to relieve her suffering is so profound an illustration of the young woman’s objectification that for those who saw Black Girl at MoMA in the 1970s, it remains the most evocative cinematic portrait of neocolonialism. Often granted the sobriquet of “father of African cinema” (his influence is apparent in such contemporary filmmakers as Abderrahmane Sissako), Sembene went on to make several excellent movies about the status of African women and girls, including Faat Kiné (2001) and his last film, Mooladé (2004), a shocking story of female genital mutilation.

It is nevertheless Black Girl for which he is best remembered, perhaps because for late 20th century audiences, Diouana embodied the Zeitgeist, the worldwide struggle for personal freedom and political sovereignty. For this critic, her heroism is the stuff of classical Greek tragedy: while Diouana represents a distinctly African (or Senegalese) experience of human bondage, by virtue of her dignity and her courage in confronting her fate, she is also an archetypal figure in the recurring tale of Western literature, that of the destruction of innocence.

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