In 1966, Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène released his debut feature, Black Girl, and with it changed the face – and the perception – of African cinema forever. It is a tragic, polemical warning about the enduring influence of Western colonialism in the twentieth century.
The film tells the story of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young woman from Dakar, Senegal who is hired as a maid by a couple of privileged French expats. While in Dakar, this primarily means looking after their three children. Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) eventually return to France and send for Diouana soon after. When she arrives, her role has changed considerably. No longer does she care for the children, who are conspicuously absent, but instead she spends all her time cleaning and cooking for her masters and their friends.
Diouana’s forced subservience sends her into a deep despair. It is distressing to see a woman once so optimistic and full of joy brought so low by the bondage in which she is placed. Her dreams of Europe, informed by glossy magazines full of beautiful women and promises of a rich, happy life, are empty ones. Even before leaving Dakar, Diouana wonders if France is too good to be true. ‘Do you think France is prettier than this?’ she asks her boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene), while gazing up at the white apartment blocks of her employers’ rich neighbourhood.
While Madame and Monsieur see Diouana as little more than a commodity, Sembène paints a detailed portrait of her for us, the viewer. Her quiet wilfulness, the pride she takes in her presentation, her moments of childishness, and all her other idiosyncrasies show Diouana to be a complex, principled young woman. In comparison, the people she serves are petty, immodest boors; their power over Diouana is only one – but perhaps the most offensive – of many injustices in Black Girl.
Her masters cannot see her as an equal, however, and if the title that Sembène has given his film is intended to be provocative, it is with their ignorance in mind. For them, Diouana is entirely defined by the colour of her skin. She is just another piece of Africa that they have appropriated, a trophy to display alongside all the other Senegalese artefacts that dress their apartment. A friend of theirs disgustingly enthuses that he has ‘never kissed a Negress before,’ a sentence that elicits only the briefest moment of mock-sympathy for Diouana from her Madame.
Sembène’s influences, particularly the French New Wave, are easily distinguishable in Black Girl, yet the film is not an imitation of one of Godard’s or Truffaut’s. It is a close cousin, made with the same respect for the artistic value of cinema. Close-ups are used frequently, particularly to emphasise Diouana’s feelings towards her changing circumstances. Every frame is precisely composed and in flicking back-and-forth between Diouana’s former life in Dakar and her unhappy life in France, Sembène neatly articulates the extent to which her liberty has been assaulted.
Diouana’s composure hides a deep-seated, righteous anger but throughout Black Girl she retains her dignity, despite her situation. It is this more than anything else that separates her from her self-important masters. The staggering, unexpected finale is even more powerful because of the calmness that precedes it.
Ousmane Sembène is often referred to as the ‘father of African cinema,’ and Black Girl shows that the honorary title is justified. Few auteurs have depicted struggle of any sort so vividly or eloquently and Sembène manages to do so while providing a voice for a whole continent of people. Black Girl is a vital work in the history of world cinema.