Black Girl (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Produced by André Zwoboda; written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, based on his novella; cinematography by Christian Lacoste; edited by André Gaudier; starring M’bissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, and Robert Fontaine. Blu-ray, B/W, 59 min., 1966. A Criterion Collection release.

A tug of war occurs towards the end of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl between Diouana (M’bissine Therese Diop) and her mistress or Madame (Ann-Marie Jelinek).  Diouana, who has been hired as a nanny but forced to perform other household chores, wants to reclaim an African mask she has given to her mistress as a gift.  But Madame refuses to let it go, and the camera follows them as they circle, each tightly gripping the mask.  It is a metaphor that dramatically captures the clash of French and African culture; an explicit example of Sembene’s commentary on colonialism and the brutal impact of its inhumane treatment of native people.  

From the opening scene where Diouana disembarks after arriving by ship to the French Rivera, she ponders who will pick her up.  This is the first indication that things have not been fully planned and agreed upon between her and her employer.  Though she is dressed splendidly [it should be noted that she was a seamstress who made all of her costumes for the film], her comportment practically regal, there is still an air of uncertainty about things, but she is buoyed by the great expectations in France after leaving Senegal.

Almost immediately her dreams are shattered, the children are not there, and her mistress presents her with an apron, and commands her to cook, clean, and attend to her needs and those of her husband or Monsieur (Robert Fontaine).  Day after day, task after task, pushes Diouana further away from what she had envisioned; unable to explore the streets of the Rivera, and virtually in solitary confinement, she begins to slowly sink into a bitter silence, and then a sullen defiance.

Sembene interrupts this linear progression with a series of flashbacks, none more pertinent than the circumstances that brought Diouana and her employers together in Dakar.  It was a promising beginning and Diouana is jubilant about the prospects, which are a bit complicated by having to leave her boyfriend behind.  The only relief she has from the drudgery, the nearly slave-driving demands of Madame is to retreat to her room and stare at the photo she made with her lover before departure.  Daydreaming is a flight from reality and a momentary happiness.

M'bissine Therese Diop plays Diouana, a domestic worker who moves to France to work as a nanny for a middle-class family. 

As Diouana’s depression mounts, she becomes more distant, more incapable of enduring the insults and slights, one that occurs when visitors in conversation with Madame and Monsieur speak of Africans in derogatory terms, seeing them as nothing more than “animals.” Each indignity, each moment of disrespect infuriates Diouana and you know it’s only a matter of time before she either leaves the house or takes control of her agency, or…

Another alternative is to sleep and perchance to dream of what might have been or to remember those moments with her lover in his apartment.  And in his apartment, as is Sembene’s style, there is draped on the wall a tapestry adorned with the portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the martyred Congolese patriot and first premier.  It’s one of the few comforting moments in the film, and one in which the lovers have a chance to express some sense of hope and possibility.  Theirs is the brief bright light in Africa against the bleak darkness of France.

Overcome and distraught, Diouana—who is repeatedly asked “Are you ill?”—takes her own life and Sembene offers a parallel scene of her drowning in the bathtub with Europeans lolling on the beaches of the Rivera.   Diouana’s death is disclosed in a newspaper story as seen over the shoulder of Monsieur.  There is no indication of sorrow or loss by Madame and Monsieur, nor does Sembene provide any details after her death.

Still, there must be closure and Monsieur gathers Diouana’s few possessions, packs them in her suitcase with the mask under his arm, and returns to Dakar.  From a letter Diouana’s mother wrote to her, which had to be read to her, Monsieur is able to find his way to the shacks where her mother resides.  He is accompanied there by a scribe played by Sembene in an appearance not unlike a Hitchcockian cameo, the unmistakable pipe clinched in his teeth.  One would guess that giving himself a role in his first feature film (1966)—and a pioneering one at that for sub-Saharan Africa—Sembene steps from behind the camera and the script, giving his actors an additional ballast of confidence.

Upon meeting the mother, Monsieur attempts to give her some money, but she refuses to take it.  In an earlier scene before Diouana takes her life, she offered the same money but refuses to take it.  Both mother and daughter were expressing at least semblance of pride and dignity in rejecting the money, as though a life has a price.

Frustrated by the rejection, Monsieur leaves the compound and is followed by a young boy who has taken the mask he left, puts it over his face and tramps behind Monsieur as walks toward his car and back to France.

Again, Sembene, with the child behind the mask as a symbol of the past and the future, suggesting that the young boy will not have such a tragic end; and the mask also conjures the great poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote “We wear the mask.” While Dunbar was signifying on the guile behind the smile, the young boy was taunting and haunting Monsieur with the possible intention of keeping Diouana’s memory alive.

Ashley Clark, the film critic whose long essay is enclosed in the Blu-Ray package, registers a similar comment on the film’s closing moments, on how the “sad saga is transformed into a transcendent howl of hope for a new Africa.”

M'bissine Therese Diop as Diouana, imprisoned in Madame's apartment.

There is a slow, languid pace to the hour-long film, with an economy of dialogue that is only slightly enhanced by a musical score partly European and partly African.  It is representative of the divide between the two cultures, although we are never in doubt where the power lies.  Diouana’s life and tragedy, based on a true story that Sembene first treated in a novella, is at last symbolic, and you wish she could have been stronger, took the money, sent some home and then take flight to the Rivera and rejoice in a new found freedom.

But that’s my ending, which is not consistent with the tragedy.  Sembene, the auteur, is faithful to her demise, his creative genius comes into play as he applies meaning and context to her travail.  With not much to work with, Sembene tracks what may have been her passage to such a tragic end.  The cruelty she encountered makes her path to suicide so terrifyingly logical. 

The newly restored digital Blu-Ray edition of the film, along with the booklet mentioned above, includes an excerpt from Sembene discussing the film after winning the Prix Jean Vigo award; an interview with Ms. Diop; a documentary on Sembene by Manthia Diawara and Ngugi wa Thiongo; a trailer of the film; and perhaps most rewardingly a compelling discourse on Sembene’s life and legacy by Samba Gadjigo.

Much of what Gadjigo relates in his insight personal portrait of Sembene appeared in his biography Ousmane Sembene—The Making of a Militant Artist (Indiana University Press, 2010).  From Gadjigo we learn of Sembene’s remarkable odyssey, the activist background, his proletariat beginnings that morphed into a writer determined to give voice to the underrepresented.  It was on the docks of Marseilles, Gadjigo explained, that Sembene found resonance with the workers and contact with members of the French Communist Party.  His political evolution on the docks resembles the experiences of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, and Sembene absorbed the works of Richard Wright and Jacques Roumain and other Negritude artists.

Sembene the author—and his books flowed ceaselessly after his early apprenticeship with the literature of the Diaspora—was not satisfied with the impact of his publications.  Gadjigo said, it was Sembene’s desire to “recover the silenced voices of history that prompted” him “to embrace cinema.”  At the Gorky Studio in Moscow, under the tutelage of Mark Donskoi, Sembene learned the fundamentals of filmmaking.

In 1962, Sembene returned to Senegal armed with a 35mm camera and ready to link his literary career with a venture into films.  That venture quickly emerged a year later with his short film Borom Seret (the waggoner), which won him an award and bolstered his confidence[there are snippets of the film among the supplements in the Blu-Ray package].  Three years later, Sembene made Black Girl and as the Blu-Ray edition beautifully presents, the filmmaker had arrived.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3