Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 Senegalese film Black Girl (a.k.a. La Noir de…, translatable as The Black Girl Belonging to…) is one of the more damning racial portraits I have yet encountered. Black Girl is a bleak portrait of economic disparity, the difficulty of immigration, the realities of racial privilege, and the one’s loss of national identity. It is deceptively spare, presenting its harsh dramas quietly and naturally, luring the audience inside the confining domestic prisons of the young Diouana using a disarming kitchen sink style of filmmaking, which was still, in 1966, relatively new.
Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is an ambitious young black woman living in Dakar, Senegal, who dreams of moving out of her mother’s tiny home and going to the big city somewhere in Europe. She idly ponders a better life. One morning she is hired by a rich white French woman referred to only as Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). Diouana is to be a live-in maid in a well-off white household in Antibes, France. This is a great boon to her, of course, and when she is hired, she tells all her neighbors. “I’m going to work for white people!” It’s good news.
This journey, however, is intercut with the present, where we see what Diouana’s life has become. She is so busy, and her white employers are so dismissive of her, that she has quickly become a bitter, distant soul. Madame and Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) are quick with orders, not really bothering to ask anything about her or her life. Diouana must look after the children, prepare meals, and take only precious little time to feed herself. When there is a dinner party, the guests marvel over her dark skin and exotic demeanor. One of them asks for a kiss because he’s “never kissed a negress.”
Diouana’s relationship to Madame and Monsieur, we quickly see, has gone from one of employee/employers to slave/masters. Diouana is not allowed to have a life, cannot wear what she wants, is carefully dressed and primed, and has no time to leave the house. She is essentially in captivity. To make matters worse, when she begins to falter, or shows any sign of humanity, she is berated for being lazy or stupid.
Diouana, we see, is no longer seen as human by Madame. She’s now “The Help,” and her financial situation leaves her floundering for identity, for freedom. In a quiet moment, and one of the film’s more powerful, we see Diouana strip from her maid outfit, very casually, and change into her nightgown. It’s a liberating moment for her and for the audience. We aren’t objectifying her body in that moment, but are witnessing her being a person from behind the bars of her bourgeois cage.
Things cannot end well in such a place. Needless to say, Madame and Monsieur are not going to be left innocent in any of this.
Black Girl – often called the first important African feature film – can be interpreted as a mere penetrating personal drama, but it’s impossible to look at this film apolitically. The interracial politics of a post-Colonial world are sticky at best, and destructive at worst. Senegal was famously occupied by various European powers for centuries, and wasn’t liberated until 1960, when it became a socialist republic, led by a French-speaking president. Senegal was essentially a brand new country when Black Girl was filmed, and Sembène wanted to depict the uneasiness of the nation’s continued reliance on colonial powers, and how colonial dominance had continued to leak into the subconscious minds of the European middle classes who were still kind of okay with a certain for of domestic slavery.
Black Girl, then, points out a very salient and important political point that remains timely: All first-world nations are still – whether or not we realize it – colonizing other nations economically. We rely on foreign labor, usually in the form of exploiting impoverished citizens. And yet, we treat that labor like dirt. Sembène’s dark thesis is that white people tend to fall back on a master/slave dynamic when hiring foreign people of color, and that the people of color have absolutely no recourse but to be abused and disposed of.
Black Girl, now available from The Criterion Collection, might very well be essential viewing, especially in an increasingly isolationist America. It would certainly make a good double feature with Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, or any other great film about the immigrant experience. It’s another uncovered gem that warrants exploration, discussion, and, most importantly, a call to action.
Top image: New Yorker Video
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The New Beverly ‘Blog, and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.