By Mike Dub
Black Girl is not a great film, but it is a film that should be seen. Directed by Ousmane Sembene in 1966, it became the first film made by a black, sub-Saharan African to make an appearance on the international stage. Like a lot of groundbreaking films that deal with heavy issues, Black Girl is easy to admire, despite the flaws inherent in a filmmaker’s first microbudget feature.
The story concerns Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a lovely, free-spirited young woman from Senegal who serves as the maid for a wealthy white French couple, referred to only as “Madame” (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and “Monsieur” (Robert Fontaine). In a series of flashbacks, Diouana reveals how she was brought to France – her Madame picked her among a group of other women on a street corner, impressed that Diouana was the only one who wasn’t begging. The position Diouana sought was a nanny, though the job turns out to be nothing more than a maid. Once in France, the illiterate Diouana becomes a slave to her masters, who control her money and transportation, and read and write her letters for her.
Clearly inspired by the French New Wave movement, Black Girl was independently made on a shoestring budget, and some of the production limitations actually serve the film well. The audio in the film, comprised mostly of Diouana’s narration, is noticeably the product of postproduction recording, but the resulting dissonance between the location shooting and the studio recorded voiceover often enriches the sense of Diouana’s isolation, her thoughts resounding in a vacuum from the world around her. Likewise, the enclosed space of the apartment that Diouana cleans comes to feel both tightly enclosed and utterly bland. The apartment is a study in chic, urban sterility, a place where sunshine constantly floods in through the skylight, but from which there is no exit.
However, in other respects the inexperience of the filmmakers can be distracting. The performances are pretty stiff, certainly compromised by the lack of on-set audio. While the narration feels ethereal, the dialogue comes off as stodgy and inexpert. Invoking so much voiceover to move along the narrative does allow us direct entry into Diouana’s perspective, a perspective hardly ever granted to a Western audience, but there are times when it feels more monotonous than unique.
Despite the imperfections, though, Black Girl remains a powerful indictment of post-colonial relations between France and Senegal. Though the story of Diouana can be heavy handed at times, the film finds sharp insights in some smaller moments. The best, and probably most famous, piece in the film deals with a mask that Diouana’s young brother gives her as she leaves Senegal for France. Once there, the French employers find the mask, claim it, and hang it on their wall as art, seizing ownership not only of Diouana’s culture but of her very identity.
Diouana’s tragedy is inevitable from the start. A new kind of slave in modern France, we know she will not find a way out. But those small, biting moments inside her story are what make her tragedy so painfully relevant.