|Director Ousmane Sembène|
|deleted color scene|
BLACK GIRL (La Noir de…) A Senegal France (65 mi) 1966 d: Ousmane Sembène
At a moral level, I don’t think we have any lesson to learn from Europe. —Ousmane Sembène, Village voice | Film | The Guardian
Another film that reveals what it means to be black, and while primarily targeting black audiences, it’s also a useful primer for whites, offering an analysis of the underlying root of racism that is simplistically told from a black perspective, running into resistance from even educated whites who refuse to process or comprehend the cogent message contained within, as their lives are relatively undisturbed, remaining largely unaffected by what Sembène is trying to express, yet it’s a call of anguish, a cry for help, desperately trying to change the damaging colonialist relationships that prevail, which lay the foundation for racial oppression, where without fail one class is served while the other is the server, with no regard whatsoever for the consequences, so long as the white dominant class remains dominant. To whites, that’s all that seems to matter, while blacks remain economically exploited and damaged psychologically, enduring emotional hardships that whites can’t even begin to understand. Made nearly half a century ago, it is the first feature film made by a black African in sub-Saharan Africa to reach an international audience, certainly among the first to provide complex interiority in an African character, opening new doors, yet his potent message has fallen on deaf ears. It’s a powerful film, difficult to endure, barely an hour long, yet it’s hard not to be shaken by the allegorical quality of the content, an experience shared by other young Africans who are part of the transitory migrant labor experience to Europe, looking elsewhere for a better life, suggesting freedom and dignity will never be achieved on terms set by the oppressor. Adapting a 1962 short story he’d written entitled The Promised Land, Sembène offers a fictional framework of what Frantz Fanon was writing about in his 1967 historical critique Black Skin, White Masks, revelatory material exploring the dehumanizing effects of colonial domination, with Fanon merging medical case history with historical realities, where continually acting in a submissive and subordinate manner demeans one’s self-worth, eliminating any idea of aspiring to something greater, leaving one instead helplessly demoralized. Part of what’s so striking about this film is the casual air of indifference associated with the white middle class, where the lighthearted musical leitmotif playing when whites are onscreen sounds more like Nino Rota in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (THE GOOD LIFE) (1960), while an unmistakable African soundtrack of thumb pianos and koras are a constant reminder of the life left behind. Following the life of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), an illiterate young girl from Dakar, Senegal, her life is uprooted when she obtains a job as a governess with a white French family living in Dakar, basically looking after their children. But when the family moves back to Antibes in France, bringing her with them, the relationship changes drastically, as she’s ordered around, abusively yelled at constantly, with cooking and cleaning duties added to her job duties, basically becoming the household maid, feeling duped and demeaned, without ever discussing any of this with her. Using bold black and white color contrasts, her life is solitary and routine, never given any time off, where she’s continually at the beck and call of the family, who regularly and rudely put her in her place, constantly reminded of her lowly status, where she internalizes the negativity, manifesting signs of abuse. The euphoria she displayed when she got the job disappears, replaced by a sullen attitude of passive hostility, where she doesn’t want to be there, as they never allow her out of the house, so she has no life of her own. Making things worse, they don’t even pay her, so she has no economic alternatives, stuck like a prisoner across the continents in someone else’s home. Her dilemma is given an existential voice, speaking her innermost thoughts in voiceover, and while this is her story, her thoughts are curiously spoken by another Haitian actress in French, Toto Bissainthe, who plays the grandmother in Raoul Peck’s 1993 Haitian powerhouse The Man On the Shore (L’Homme sur les quais), with French being a language Diouana does not understand, basically telegraphing the degree of her disconnect, allowing viewers to acknowledge the emotional upheaval she’s going through, even as her host family ignores it completely.
An early 70-minute version included a brief color sequence on her arrival to France, but was altered and rewritten in French in order to get the film financed, as the African script was initially rejected by the Film Bureau of Senegal, instead meeting the short film requirements in order to bypass the Bureau’s ruling. Of interest, Sembène has a small role in the film as a Dakar school instructor who’s also in the business of writing letters to family members abroad for those who can’t read and write. Sembène worked as a mason, carpenter, mechanic, dockworker, union organizer, and had also served as a sharp-shooter in the French colonial army during the Second World War before becoming a socially committed writer, a provocative politically-oriented griot filmmaker, social activist and critic, frequently described as the “father of African cinema,” yet this film in particular is among the most studied films by scholars, even taught in schools around the world, as it typifies not only colonial exploitation, but common elements of unhindered racism that prevail with whites in complete denial about what role they play in the perpetuation of human suffering. Primarily intended for African audiences, the film is a tool for progress that demands self-examination, while bringing new awareness to others of Africa’s history and traditions, using a social realist film technique that feels like a documentary, resembling the New Wave cinéma vérité style, with the film offering a mirror of history. Along with music, an African mask follows Diouana throughout her ordeal, initially given to her by a young boy who could be her younger brother in Dakar, promising to pay him with her first wages, then offered as a gift to her host white family, who hang it on the wall, adding it to their art collection, where it stands alone, watching over her, like an unseen conscience, or a godly African spirit, an image of Négritude, reminding her of her African roots. Before the film is over, however, the mask is returned to that same boy on the street in Dakar, who dons the mask, becoming an avenging force, threatening Monsieur (Robert Fontaine), the white man who returned it, acting increasingly nervous, suddenly feeling out of place, rapidly escaping to the safety of his car and driving away. Yet when the boy removes the mask at the end, he’s just a boy, vulnerable and fragile, and alone, which is the haunting final shot as the credits roll, with suggestions that his future is an open question. That mask shadows her life, giving it meaning, even as she loses all connection. Growing more and more disillusioned and discouraged as the film progresses, Diouana falls into a lethargic depression, finding it hard to get out of bed, as she’s lost any sense of her own humanity, treated more like a pet animal balancing a ball on its nose, where she’s supposed to bemuse and entertain her host family, who never show any concern about her changing mood, as all they care about are the duties she’s expected to perform. Their casual indifference is appalling, leaving her no one to talk to, no one to trust, literally no way out, as she grows to despise her host family, but never utters a word. They don’t believe she can speak French anyway, but understands by instinct, “like an animal,” suggesting if you don’t speak French, you are less than human. One white guest abruptly kisses Diouana without consent, claiming he never kissed a black woman before, never thinking he had to ask, believing it was his right to do what he wanted with her, viewing her as little more than a family pet to play with. Diouana had dreams about travelling to France, loving the pictures in the fashion magazines, thinking she would explore the country and shop to her heart’s delight, but none of her initial hopes materialize, as instead she’s become co-opted and enslaved, turned into someone she loathes, afraid to even look at herself in the mirror, imprisoned by her circumstances, withering away into a dull void. When she looks out her window into the night she sees a blackness, which appears like a black hole that has sucked all the life out of her. It’s an extraordinary portrait of living separate lives, black and white, two entirely different worlds of understanding, yet whites see no problem in continually bossing around the black hired help, expecting them to work on command.
Sembène builds dramatic tension through Diouana’s deteriorating mindset, which is expressed openly to the audience through voiceover revelations, while the host family remains clueless, and more to the point, they’re not really interested. Their lives revolve around themselves, excluding even their own children most of the time, continually sending them outside to play just to get rid of them. From Diouana’s point of view, all they do is gorge themselves on food while spending their lives drinking excessively, then expecting her to clean up the mess they’ve left behind. What’s truly startling is the extravagance and wealth just outside their door, as this is the French Riviera of Nice and Cannes and Antibes, which she can get a glimpse of through her window, but she may as well be on planet Mars, as she’s totally excluded from French society while being exiled from her own African home and family, where her future only grows more dire. The extent to which she deteriorates reflects her open humiliation and all-consuming anger at how egregiously she’s mistreated, eventually refusing to work altogether, or endure any more commands, having reached her psychological limit, where “never again” becomes her final mantra, veering into the fractured reality of Polanski’s REPULSION (1965), playing out like a Greek tragedy, where passive resistance is her only means, remaining silent and withdrawn. Her silence is particularly affecting, her emotions muted, offering a chilling testimony, yet it was that same silence that got her the job in the first place, as the other job applicants were overly aggressive, with her employer admiring her passivity. That polite silence is a mask she wears while around her host family, as it covers up her real interior thoughts, showing them the face they want to see, docile and submissive. Her withdrawn alienation is the key to the film, in stark contrast to the assertiveness of her white employer, who herself grows displeased with her own husband, finding her marriage in turmoil, only exacerbated by a servant work stoppage she fails to comprehend. The starkness of the story is coupled by a series of flashbacks, where Diouana has a brief romance with a young student (Momar Nar Sene) in Dakar, who has a tapestry portrait of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba on the wall, lying in bed eying magazines together, dreaming of what life will be like in France, imagining all the opportunities she will have. Much worse than simple cultural misunderstanding, it’s important to point out that Senegal gained their independence in 1960, a time when French expatriates still comprised 10% of Dakar’s population, 33% of the nation’s cabinet positions, and 66% of the university faculty, making it, in essence, a neo-colonialist state, where Diouana still feels obligated to look to France for post-colonial employment and a future, finding herself drowning and suffocating in that same colonialist mentality the nation extricated itself from. Let’s not forget that Senegal was a former French colony that banned Africans from filming in their own country, one of the primary reasons Sembène became a filmmaker, viewing it as an act of liberation, and it was the French that historically gained control of the Atlantic slave trade, using the island of Gorée, a short distance from Dakar, to house, auction, and transport slaves across the ocean, the subject of another film RETURN TO GORÉE (2007), where Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour returned to the “Maison des esclaves” for a live musical performance that offers a sanctuary of hope. Known only as Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek), her selection process in viewing prospective job applicants resembles a new black slave trade, with black aspiring applicants all waiting on a street corner for potential white employers to select one of them, eying them up from behind her dark glasses, checking them out, choosing a path of least resistance, finding the one that conforms to her predetermined point of view. That racial assessment is at the heart of the film, as Madame believes she owns Diouana, viewing her as little more than a piece of purchased property, free to do with as she pleases. That’s the arrangement, built on commerce, but fueled by a history of racist superiority that allows whites to casually dismiss any element of humanity associated with a worker for hire. As far as Madame is concerned, she unambiguously has sole and exclusive rights, blind to any interior story of exile and despair.