“A harrowing human drama as well as a radical political statement.”
Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl is a elegant short story of a film: just long enough to draw you into the complex inner life of its central character before cutting out just before the one-hour mark with a hauntingly perfect ending. It’s noted for being the first prominent Sub-Saharan African film to actually be directed by an African filmmaker, and it marks a remarkable opening chapter in a distinguished filmmaking career (Sembene would eventually become known as, “the father of African film”).
When we first meet Diouana (Mbissine Therese Diop) – an Senegalese immigrant who now works as a maid in France – we immediately notice her elegance. She may have a humble job, but she wears such striking clothes and carries herself with such poise. However, it doesn’t take long for her employer – a perpetually irritable white woman known only as “Madame” (Anne-Marie Jelinek) – to grow resentful of the way Diouana looks. She demands that the maid stop dressing so nicely (“you aren’t going to a party!”), and orders her to wear a dingy-looking apron (something she presents as a thoughtful gift). Diouana increasingly begins to despair about the state of her life, and increasingly begins to feel that she is a slave. She came to France to live an exciting new life, but never gets to see any of her beautiful new country. “France, for me, is the living room, the bathroom, the kitchen and my bedroom,” she tells us.
In extended interludes, the film fills us in on the details of Diouana’s life before her current position. She grew up in the impoverished village of Dakar, where everyone is desperate to find work and few people can read or write. Eventually, she meets Madame, who needs someone to take care of her children while she and her husband (Robert Fontaine) are living in the country. Diouana’s quiet, submissive demeanor wins her the position: Madame can’t stand the locals who are shameless enough to actually beg for work. Diouana’s family is thrilled (“You have a job! Working for white people!”), and when the invitation to move to France is offered, it seems like a dream come true. Reality, alas, is much harsher.
For a film made in 1966, there’s a fairly stunning clarity about the many different layers of bigotry that exist beyond surface-level hatefulness. That said, not many films in 1966 were actually directed by people who had experienced many different shades of bigotry first-hand. Sembene’s film initially seems melancholy in an oh-so-French sort of way, but eventually reveals itself as something deeply angry. It’s a film about the crushing effect of being treated as an object rather than a human, and about being forced to choose between the prison of poverty and the prison of servitude.
Pointedly, the film contains very little in the way of overt conventional racism. Madame and Monsieur are the sort of racist couple who actually think of themselves as progressive, littering their home with “authentic” foreign artifacts and patting themselves on the back for hiring Diouana in the first place. Madame is cruel and doesn’t recognize it, while Monsieur recognizes Madame’s cruelty and is too cowardly to actually do anything about it. However, neither seems to understand just how much they are robbing Diouana of: her happiness, her sense of purpose, her voice and her identity. In retrospect, the final stop on this tragic journey seems inevitable.
Black Girl (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an excellent 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The image looks remarkably sharp given the film’s image, as the black-and-white cinematography is presented with exceptional detail and depth. There are very faint scratches here and there, but nothing distracting. Black levels are strong and a moderate amount of grain is present. The LPCM 1.0 Mono gets a little tinny at times, but is generally free of crackling and hiss. Supplements include an hour-long documentary on Sembene’s impact on African cinema, Sembene’s first short film “Borom Sarret,” an interview with Diop, featurettes on “Borom Sarret” and Black Girl, a brief color sequence that was cut from the film, an archival interview with Sembene, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Ashley Clark.
Black Girl is a striking and powerful (if brief) directorial debut that offers ahead-of-its-time clarity on difficult subjects. Highly recommended.