Ousmane Sembène’s ‘Black Girl’ Turns 50


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Mbissine Thérèse Diop in “Black Girl,” the first feature by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène.

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Janus Films

The Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, habitually described as the father of African cinema, was a lifelong critic of patriarchy. An avowedly political artist — he had been a labor organizer and a novelist before turning to filmmaking — Mr. Sembène grounded his attacks on colonial oppression and post-independence corruption and compromise in a feminism that could be both subtle and blunt.

“When women progress, society progresses,” he remarked late in his career — he died in 2007 — and the suffering and stoicism of women figure in all phases of his work. His penultimate feature, “Faat-Kiné” (2001), is the portrait of a defiantly independent entrepreneur in Dakar, Senegal, a single mother who refuses the melodramatic options of pity or shame that would have been her conventional cinematic fate. Mr. Sembène’s final movie, the indelible “Moolaadé” (2004), followed a group of women in a rural village organizing to stop the traditional practice of genital cutting. The empathy and the radicalism that animate those films were present much earlier, in “Black Girl,” his first feature, which begins a weeklong run at BAM Rose Cinemas on Wednesday before its release on DVD by Criterion.

“Black Girl,” which turns 50 this year and has been restored, is one of those works of art that is at once powerfully of its moment and permanently contemporary. Sixty-five minutes long, filmed in a handful of locations in narrow-screen black-and-white, with sound dubbed in afterward, the movie can be regarded, among other things, as a masterpiece of thrift. Mr. Sembène, working with the French cinematographer Christian Lacoste and a small, nonprofessional cast, had the ingenuity — the vision — to turn material limitations to artistic advantage. The unsynchronized dialogue, which seems to float above the heads of the characters rather than emerging from their mouths, gives the action a dreamlike quality and infuses an objectively grim, realistic story with poetry and longing.

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Trailer: ‘Black Girl’

A preview of the film.


By JANUS FILMS on Publish Date May 17, 2016.


Photo by New Yorker Films/Photofest, via BAM.

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The story might have been suggested by a brief article in a French newspaper, a terse and tragic police-blotter item shown onscreen near the end of the film. “Black Girl” is thus, in some ways, a documentary after the fact, an attempt to trace an awful, easily forgotten event to its source and to emphasize its political implications. The fate of an individual — a domestic worker who has traveled from Senegal to work as a nanny and housekeeper for a middle-class family in France — is used to illuminate larger issues of identity, exploitation and displacement.

That sounds like standard neorealism, and Mr. Sembène’s affinities with postwar Italian cinema are apparent, even if they are probably less a matter of influence than of shared ideological and aesthetic impulses. His first short, the 18-minute “Borom Sarret,” which is being released along with “Black Girl,” feels like a succinct variation on the theme of Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves.” It chronicles a day in the life of a horse-cart driver in Dakar trying to feed his family and preserve his dignity in the face of obstacles large and small.

His predicament is not unlike that faced by Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), the title character of “Black Girl,” whose daily routines of drudgery and tedium drive her into depression and worse. But while both characters are representative of a social condition — the poverty and injustice that fester in Senegal after independence; the inequalities that persist between white French citizens and their former colonial subjects — they do not seem like puppets in a political passion play.

On the contrary, the force of Mr. Sembène’s art — the sheer beauty that is the most striking feature of his early films — lies in his humanism. The task “Black Girl” sets itself is not just to note the facts of Diouana’s life but also to assert her visibility, to ensure that she is seen. Several years before the phrase “black is beautiful” entered the lexicon of American racial politics, “Black Girl” insisted as much from its very opening frames. Ms. Diop, dressed in a white polka-dot dress and turban, moves through a world dominated by blinding, literal whiteness.

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Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker who is regarded as the father of African cinema.

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Seyllou/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The blazing sun of Antibes, the Mediterranean city where Diouana’s employers live, gives their high-rise apartment an almost hallucinatory quality. Its walls are blank and bleached, and its inhabitants are cold and self-absorbed. Diouana’s psychological unraveling can partly be traced to her physical environment, which in turn underlines her cultural and existential isolation. The symbol of her alienation is a mask that she gives her employers as a gift and later tries to take back. It hangs on the wall of the Antibes apartment, a memento of home and also a totem of her estrangement from it.

Mr. Sembène flashes back to the lively, dusty streets of Dakar, but he was never one to promote an idealized or sentimental picture of Senegal, or to refrain from criticizing its postcolonial governments. Nor, for all the specificity of its setting, does “Black Girl” offer an easily digestible picture of African identity. The solution to Diouana’s crisis, in other words, is far from simple, partly because her problems are themselves complicated. In Dakar, she dreams of going to France. When that dream comes true, she longs to be back in Senegal. She is hardly a picture of saintly stoicism, but a young woman subject to the usual range of emotions. To the couple for whom she works, she appears lazy, sullen and irrational, an example of the difficulty of finding good help.

Mr. Sembène uses her inner state, and Ms. Diop’s impassive features and upright bearing, to draw a map of modern oppression. Diouana is an African migrant in France, a woman in a male-dominated society and, perhaps above all, an exploited worker in a brutal, global cash economy. Not one of these identities is the key to the others. They function together, ensnaring her efforts to feel herself fully human — to discover who she is — in a web of constraints.

For all its abundant historical interest, “Black Girl” unfolds in the present tense, and directs its characters and its audience toward a still-unwritten future. The last shot, back in Dakar, is of a boy holding Diouana’s mask halfway over his face, looking directly into the camera. Who was he? Who is he? Who will he become?

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