A young black woman in newly independent Senegal accompanies her employers to France to work as a governess. She imagines she will enjoy the comforts of bourgeois French society. Instead, she discovers her second-class status as an exotic outsider, leading to a crisis of identity and, ultimately, suicide.
Black Girl (La Noire de … ), the first feature film of Senegalese novelist and director Ousmane Sembène, may be rightly credited with helping to put African cinema – a cinema ‘that stars [black] Africans, is cinematographed, written, directed, etc., by blacks’ – onto the world stage.1 Released in 1966, it won the Prix Jean Vigo, which previously been awarded to such filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard for Breathless (À bout de souffle), Alain Resnais for Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) and Chris Marker Statues Also Die (Les Statues meurent aussi). Similar to Statues, Black Girl is concerned with the after-effects of colonialism, but rather than seeing African art compromised by being decontextualised in French museums, Sembène’s film tells the story of a young African woman taken from Dakar to the French Riviera to be a nanny, but treated as a maid and objet d’art for other white French people. Black Girl’s iconic status may be attributed to its relatively straightforward narrative style, Christian Lacoste’s striking black and white cinematography, and its strong anti-colonial themes.
The first feature film by an African director was almost not made at all. Because of the relative scarcity of avenues for independent film production and distribution, the Consortium Audiovisuel International (CAI) and Bureau de Cinéma (Film Bureau), under the auspices of the post-independence French Ministry of Cooperation could exert influence over the ideological content of the films by refusing to assist filmmakers with whose politics it did not agree or to produce films whose subject matter it did not approve.2 Though the Bureau would eventually buy the distribution rights, it rejected the script to Black Girl, leaving Sembène to produce the film independently with the aid of André Zwobada, who also gave Sembène access to editing equipment.3
The frustrations of the filmmaking process, and patronising attitudes of the former French colonial rulers continuing to exercise a pseudo-colonial control over the recently independent Senegal, which gained its independence in 1960, inform the film’s themes. Black Girl opens with a boat coming to harbour that contains the titular ‘black girl’, who, as in the more ambiguous French title (La Noire de … ), is caught between one world – Africa – and another – Europe – without belonging fully in either. Fittingly, she wonders whether anyone will be waiting for her after she disembarks from the ship. Credited as ‘The Maid’, she is the only character in the film with a name – Diouana. She has come to the French Riviera to work for an unnamed white couple, referred to only as ‘Madame’ and ‘Monsieur’. She was given the impression that her time in France would be devoted to tending the children and exploring France. She does not imagine herself an equal, but underestimates the degree of her subjugation as a cheap African labour.
Early shots of her mopping while wearing high heels and earrings underscore the contrast between what she believed she had come to France for – to attend the family’s children and explore France as a modern space of commercial possibility – and her function once she arrives: a maid, or as she later understands herself, a paid slave. While she longs for status items (i.e. pretty dresses, shoes, silk lingerie, and pretty wigs that she imagines will make her friends, relatives and acquaintances back in Dakar jealous) it begins to dawn on her that she is a status symbol for her white patrons – a sign of their sojourn in Senegal and a reminder of the recent colonial past – who show her off to their guests and insist that she cook ‘native’ Senegalese food for them. During the lunch, she is humiliated when one of their guests accosts her for the pleasure of kissing a ‘Negress’ for the first time. When she is visibly upset, they complain that independence has made the Africans ‘less natural’. Her frustration builds throughout her time in France until she refuses to work or eat, finally committing suicide, pledging ‘never, ever will I ever be anybody’s slave again’. Recalling the tone of the short story upon which the film is based, her suicide is recounted in the newspaper’s faits divers – a section devoted to brief sensational or lurid stories thought to be of little consequence. Monsieur returns her effects to her mother who, like Diouana, refuses his money.
One of the most striking stylistic features of the film is its distant tone. The story achieves its tone through an objective, wry, journalistic prose style, beginning by declaiming, ‘It was the morning of June 23, the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and fifty-eight. On the Croisette, neither the destiny of the French Republic, the future of Algeria, and even less those territories under the boot of the colonisers, worried those who swarmed the beaches of Antibes’. 4 The film adopts a graver, more subjective point of view, presenting viewers with a steady stream of extra-diegetic monologue (the voice of Haitian actress Toto Bissainthe) and close-ups of Diouana’s expressive face and gestures. To the extent that the other characters notice she does not speak, they attribute her silence to a poor grasp of French rather than a refusal to speak, though her silence could also be attributed to technical difficulties.5 A third reading would link the two, and see the contrast between her inner monologue and outward muteness, even among friends, as Sembène’s wry meta-commentary on the conditions under which the film was made. The tight ideological control over the content of films produced under the supervision of the Bureau made it such that, like Diouana in Black Girl, the filmmakers could just be status symbols, shown off to other Europeans as a sign of cultural advancement and sophistication. Diouana’s expressive but, to the white characters within the film, inscrutable face and motives makes her analogous to the ‘indigenous’ mask she first gives as a gift to Madame, who collects them.
Whereas her silent inscrutability gives her power, her inability to communicate in her own voice is also disabling. Diouana receives a letter from her mother in the course of the film, chastising her for not sending money home. Unable to read it, Monsieur reads it to her, then offers to write a response. When she does not dictate the letter to him, he writes it anyway, instructing her to stop him if he says anything false. She tears up the letter from her mother – no doubt written by someone else on her behalf – and leaves the room. In the circumstances where one’s speech is so carefully curtailed and allowed within such a narrow range of predictable responses, the film seems to ask, why speak at all? How can one? It is fitting, then, that a boy from Diouana’s neighbourhood uses the mask, which Monsieur returns to Diouana’s mother, as an ambiguous sign that Monsieur correctly takes as a threat, but one that remains ambiguous.
Themes of alienation, displacement and disappointment in post-independence Senegal recur in Sembène’s films, often with a politically tough, but ultimately warm, humanism. In Mandabi (1968), his second feature film, a money order from France slowly reveals itself as curse rather than blessing for a Wolof-speaking man who, unable to navigate an official bureaucracy conducted in French, falls prey to a family member. Xala (1975), the story of a corrupt politician who believes himself under the spell of a curse (xala) of impotence, ends with his ritual humiliation/cleansing by those members of the underclass whose interests he has neglected. Though one can read Sembène’s films in terms of native–foreigner, coloniser–colonised, traditional–modern dichotomies, doing so misses the ways his films implicate each pole in the other, and display people who struggle to anchor their traditions and hopes in a world that has little place for them (the characters or the traditions).
Black Girl differs from his later features in that it features a young, female protagonist, someone whose status is relatively uncertain in traditional society, and thus someone set up for both a greater expectation and a greater disappointment. Reading it strictly in terms of the recent independence that so dominates the subtext of the film misses its deeper engagement with history, as when Diouana declares ‘Never ever will I be anybody’s slave again’. In that line, as in all of the moments where she understands herself as a slave rather than employee – that is, understands herself to be fundamentally without the right to control her labour in any meaningful sense – it is hard not to hear resonance with the transatlantic slave trade. Asked about it, Sembène said, ‘We [Africans, Senegalese] were the first slavers … We even hunted down slaves so that they could be deported. We should be courageous enough to say it’. 6 He tells the story of the transformation of traditional slavery as a social status related to war to the slave trade. In this brief anecdote, his commitment to history, and the obligations to history, is clear, and links the domestic and the slave as an historical rather than a sentimental connection.
The white French couple, however, is also depicted as unmoored, bereft of the traditions that had previously given their lives meaning. Though Madame is powerful in Dakar and can have her pick of maids from women who go every day and wait to be selected, in France she is bored, ill-equipped for or uninterested in caring for her own children, anxious about her status and her husband who, like Diouana, is practically mute. Colonialism, the source of their prior power, is gone, leaving in its wake uncertainty and turmoil. They cannot understand why Diouana would be unhappy, why she would wish to die. They cannot understand why she would take back the mask she initially gives to Madame as a token of friendship (though they already have several masks), or why she would refuse payment. It is a cinema geared towards catching a historical shift in progress.
In the final scene in Dakar, having failed to resolve things with Diouana’s family or community, Monsieur finds himself the object rather than the subject of the look. The entire town stares at him with open contempt once they learn his identity. The Boy with Mask holds the mask over his own and follows Monsieur to the edge of town. Monsieur’s spell, like the allure France had held for Diouana has been broken, but there is still power in that mask, in the presentation of Africa in the present. Beyond that, it makes the Africans themselves subjects rather than passive objects of looking and of narrative. Monsieur can never know what has been said about him, if anything, and an ironic twist that we can only refer to him by a formal title objectifies him, denying him back story and imaginable future while the people of Dakar, especially the Boy with Mask whose gaze off is the last image of the film, is the one whose future viewers are invested in. If not free, he is independent from France, and the decontextualisations of the museum.
1. From French film historian Georges Sadoul, Histoire du cinéma mondial, Paris, Flammarion, 1973, p. 499. Quoted in Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 24. Though Black Girl is a French language film, later films would use Wolof more extensively.
2. Claire Andrade-Watkins, ‘Film Production in Francophone Africa 1961–1977: Ousmane Sembène – An Exception’, Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 11, 1993, pp. 26–32, and Diawara, African Cinema, pp. 23–8.
3. Andrade-Watkins, ‘Film Production in Francophone Africa’, p. 30.
4. Sembène, ‘La Noire de … ’, Voltaïque, Paris, Présence Africaine, 1962, p. 157.
5. The principal characters are all voiced by actors other than those who appear on-screen, and rarely is sound synced to source.
6. ‘An Interview with Ousmane Sembène by Sada Niang’, Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 11, 1993, pp. 89–90.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Senegal, France. Production Company: Filmi Domirev. Director: Sembène Ousmane. Producer: André Zwoboda. Screenwriter: Sembène Ousmane (based on his short story). Cinematographer: Christian Lacoste. Music: No Credit. Editor: André Gaudier. Cast: Mbissine Thérèse Diop (The Maid/Diouana), Anne-Marie Jelinek (Madame), Robert Fontaine (Monsieur), Momar Nar Sene (The Young Man), Ibrahima Boy (Boy with Mask).]
David Murphy, Sembène: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction, Oxford and Trenton, NJ, Africa World Press, 2000.
David Murphy, ‘An African Brecht: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène’, New Left Review, Vol. 16, July–August 2002, pp. 115–29.
Francoise Pfaff, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1984. Kamal Salhi, ed., Francophone Post-Colonial Cultures: Critical Essays, Oxford, Lexington Books, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.