Black Girl (1966 film)
French theatrical release poster
|La Noire de…|
|Directed by||Ousmane Sembène|
|Produced by||André Zwoboda|
|Written by||Ousmane Sembène|
|Edited by||André Gaudier|
|Distributed by||New Yorker Video|
Black Girl is a 1966 French-Senegalese film by writer/director Ousmane Sembène, starring Mbissine Thérèse Diop. Its original French title is La noire de… [la nwaʁ də], which means "The black girl/woman of…", as in "someone's black girl", or "black girl from…". The film centers on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman, who moves from Dakar, Senegal to Antibes, France to work for a rich French couple. In France, Diouana hopes to continue her former nanny job and anticipates a cosmopolitan lifestyle. But from her arrival in Antibes, Diouana experiences harsh treatment from the couple, who force her to work as a servant. She becomes increasingly aware of her constrained and alienated situation and starts to question her life in France. This was the director's first feature-length film. It is often considered the first Sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker to receive international attention.
The plot continually shifts back and forth between Diouana's present life in France where she works as a domestic servant, and flashbacks of her previous life in Senegal. During flashbacks of Diouana's life in Senegal, it is revealed that she comes from a very poor village outside of Dakar. Most people in the village cannot read or write, and each day Diouana would roam around the city in the hopes of finding a job. One day, 'Madame' comes to the square looking for a servant, and she selects Diouana from the crowd of unemployed women because she was submissive, and did not crowd forward eagerly demanding a job. She hires Diouana initially to care for her three children in Dakar. As a gift, Diouana gives her new employers a traditional mask that she had bought from a small boy for 50 guineas, and her new employers display it in their home. When Diouana is not working for Monsieur and Madame she spends time with her boyfriend, going for walks. It isn't long before Monsieur and Madame offer Diouana a job working for them in France. Diouana is thrilled, and immediately begins dreaming of her new life in France. But once she arrives Diouana is overworked, cooking and cleaning for the rich French couple and their friends. The couple treats her harshly, don't allow her to rest, and Diouana is confused as to her role in their household. She thought that she would be caring for children, as she did in Senegal, and that she would be able to go outside and see something of France. But she is always inside, cooking and cleaning the house. When she works she wears a fancy dress and heels. The mistress of the house tells her to remove them, telling her "don't forget that you are a maid." One night at a dinner party, one of Madame and Monsieur's friends kisses Diouana without her consent, explaining "I've never kissed a black girl before!" Diouana receives a letter from her mother in the mail, which Monsieur reads to her. In the letter, Diouana's mother asks why she hasn't heard from her daughter, and pleads for some money. Diouana rips the letter up. Madame refuses to let Diouana sleep, and yells at her to get to work. Diouana attempts to take back the mask she gave to Madame, and a struggle ensues. Madame tells Diouana that if she does not work, she cannot eat. Diouana refuses to work. Then, in an unexpected plot twist that is the climax of the film, Diouana commits suicide by slitting her throat in the bathtub of the family's home. The film ends with Monsieur journeying to Senegal to return Diouana's suitcase and mask to her family. He offers Diouana's mother money, but she is insulted and refuses to take it. As Monsieur leaves the village, the little boy with the mask runs along behind him, symbolizing how Monsieur is haunted by his own memories.
- Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Gomis Diouana
- Anne-Marie Jelinek as Madame
- Robert Fontaine as Monsieur
- Momar Nar Sene as Diouana's boyfriend
This film addresses the effects of colonialism, racism and post-colonial identity in Africa and Europe. These themes are highlighted through the recurring appearance of an African mask that Diouana gives to her employers on her first day of work at the house. They put the mask with other pieces of African Art and, later, the mask is hung on the white wall in the French couple's Senegalese apartment, alone. The mask has different meanings:
- Mainly it represents Diouana; at the beginning, when she gives the mask to the French family, they put the mask between other native masks, as she is still in her homeland, surrounded by people that she knows and by a familiar environment. But when they move to France, the mask is alone on a white wall, like Diouana is alone in France, surrounded by white walls and white people.
- Also, means those African people that have to move from their homeland to Europe to seek their fortune. In fact, one of the main topics of the ‘postcolonial cinema’ is the ‘migrant cinema’, that question the mobility, the ‘visual hegemony’ and the uprooting, the colonial dynamics and its legacies .
- Another analogy between the mask and Africa, for example in the last scene, when the white man is followed by the kid wearing the mask, it represents the past of Africa that will always haunt its colonizers, but also means the uncertain future of Africa.
- Furthermore, Diouana’s last act of defiance is very significant for the African status; Madame and Diouana are contending the mask as France, but more in general, Europe fought for its supremacy on African territories, but at the end the African territories during 20th century gained independence, as Diouana at the end of the fight got the mask.
The mask is a symbol of unity and identity, but today for the non-Africans it is only a ‘souvenir’.
In his 1997 book Movies as Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum makes a case for Black Girl as the symbolic genesis of sub-Saharan African filmmaking, at least to the extent that the authorship belonged to a born and bred African.
In addition, the film, being from the perspective of a Senegalese female, acts as a rare reflection of the voices of the colonized. While Senegal had gained independence in 1960 (before the film takes place), colonial oppression still thrives throughout the film. This is seen in the objectification of Diouana and the suppression of her dreams and ambitions. She is objectified by Madame, who treats her as a servant, and several other characters including Madame’s friend that kisses Diouana without asking. Her ambitions are suppressed by both Madame and Diouana’s lack of education and finances. Diouana dreams to go to the French shops, see the beautiful views, and live a luxurious lifestyle, but she does not have the resources to do so. She attempts to express some part of this dream by wearing dresses and heels while working; however, Madame yells at her to take off those clothes and reminds Diouana that she is a maid, so she has no need for such attire. In doing this, Madame suppresses Diouana’s dreams and hopes while asserting the inequality between their characters. To Diouana, France was supposed to be her chance at freedom, wealth, and happiness, and this dream was promised to her by Madame. Sembène reveals in his film that while Diouana (and the colonized) has the possibility right outside her door, quite literally, she will never be able to achieve her dreams due to the oppression of Madame (the colonizer) and the institutional discrimination embedded into society; and the colonizer offers this dream as a way to manipulate the colonized into being oppressed.
- 1966, Prix Jean Vigo for best feature film
- Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (1996). The Oxford History of World Cinema. ISBN 0-19-874242-8.
- Weiler, A. H. "2 From Senegal:Feature and Short Are at the New Yorker" The New York Times, 13 January 1969 
- Ponzanesi, Sandra and Verena Berger. “Introduction: genres and tropes in postcolonial cinema(s) in Europe”, Transnational Cinemas, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2016
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1997). Movies as Politics. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. pp. 284. ISBN 0-520-20615-0.
- Hamid, Rahul (12 December 2002). "Introduction to Black Girl". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
- Black Girl on IMDb
- (in French) At ousmanesembene.com
- Introduction at Senses of Cinema
- Slant Magazine review
- Weiler, A.H. (13 January 1969). "Screen: 2 From Senegal:Feature and Short Are at the New Yorker". The New York Times.
- Black Girl: Self, Possessed an essay by Ashley Clark at the Criterion Collection