“Black Girl” is an exemplary classic from 1966 that deserves our attention. Directed by Ousmane Sembène, it is considered the first major film produced by an African filmmaker. The film won the prestigious Jean Vigo for its artistic originality. Sembène, who hailed from Senegal, is often considered the father of African film, and his movies are known for their historical and political themes. His last film “Moolaadé” (2004) addresses the subject of female genital mutilation and won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Black Girl” is deceptively simple. The whole drama is revealed through the everyday routine of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman, who moves from Dakar, Senegal to Antibes, France to work for an affluent couple. She had been promised a job as a nanny and projected to enjoy the benefits of living in a western culture. But from her arrival in Antibes, she experiences cruel behavior from the couple who has totally separate expectations and forces her to work as a servant – containing her within the apartment walls, cooking and cleaning. Diouana starts feeling alienated – as if she were living in a prison literally and figuratively. In flashbacks we learn she comes from a very poor village outside of Dakar. Most of the villagers cannot read or write, and each day Diouana rambles around the city in the hopes of finding a job. One day, ‘Madame’ comes to the “maid’s square” looking for a servant, and she selects her from the group of unemployed women because she was submissive, and did not crowd forward eagerly demanding a job. “Black Girl” illustrates the enslavement of Diouana.
As I mentioned earlier “Black Girl” is unassuming at first glance, but the whole thing is allegorical and its determined usage of symbols and details unlock richer ideas. It tackles the effects of colonialism, racism and post-colonial identity in Africa and Europe. From the first scene as the boat arrives to France bringing Diouana, Sembène alludes to slavery. A tribal mask that Diouana gifts the couple – and recurs throughout the story — starts as a symbol of her culture and personal identity and eventually it becomes another possession for the privileged colonialists – a souvenir. In the last scene of the movie, the mask will take an entirely different meaning. Every detail in this movie is calculated. The usage of sunglasses by the Europeans in the two pivotal moments that we see them in Africa is intentional. Diouna’s choice of clothing is berated by “Madame,” who reminds her she’s a maid, asking her to wear an apron. As her identity is slowly stripped from her and she’s made to feel inferior, Diouana becomes more depressed. Because of her skin color, her country of origin, she is treated as a belonging to be used, not as an equal.
This is one of the most important films in history.
Diouana: “Kitchen, bathroom. Bedroom, living room, that’s all I ever see. This isn’t what I came to France for. What are the people here like? The doors are all shut day and night. Night and day.”
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Screenplay Ousmane Sembène
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Starring: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine
“Father of African Films”, Ousmane Sembène
“Crossing the geographical and national borders of his native Senegal, Ousmane Sembène’s literary and cinematographic output places him today as the “father” of African films and as one of the most prolific “French-speaking” African writers in this first century of “creative” writing in francophone Africa. From the publication of his first poem in Marseilles in 1956, at age thirty three, to Guelwaar (1996), his lastest published novel, Sembène has produced five novels, five collections of short stories, and directed numerous films, four shorts, nine features, and four documentaries.
Born in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, where his “crazy” fisherman father had migrated from Dakar around 1900, Ousmane Sembène has, from a marginalized and a very modest beginning, inscribed his name in world history. Expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, his formal education would never go beyond middle school. Also unable to take on his father’s trade because he was always seasick, in 1938 he was sent to his father’s relatives in Dakar, headquarters of the territories of French West Africa. From 1938 to 1944 he worked as an apprentice mechanic and a bricklayer. Although he was denied an opportunity of a formal education, Sembène developed a love of reading – mostly comics – and discovered cinema in the segregated movie houses of Dakar. He spent his days at work as a manual laborer and his after work hours either reading, watching movies or, along with his neighborhood mates, attending evenings of story telling, wrestling, and other “traditional” Senegalese cultural events. As a French citizen, in 1944, like many young Africans of his generation, he was called to active duty to liberate France from German occupation and subsequently was dispatched to the colony of Niger as a chauffeur in the 6th colonial infantry unit. Upon being discharged in 1946 at the end of the war, he went back to Dakar in the midst of charged social and political activism. That same year, for the first time, he took membership in the construction worker’s trade union and witnessed the first general workers’ strike that paralyzed the colonial economy for a month and ushered in the nationalist struggle in French Africa.
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembène left Dakar in search of a better living and also for the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. As an black African docker who “knows” how to read and write, in Cold War Marseilles, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnère and enrolled in the Confederation generale des travailleurs, the largest and most powerful left wing workers’ union in post-war France. After back-breaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembène enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism, joined the French Communist Party in 1950, and the MOURAP (Movement against racism, anti Semitism and peace) in 1951, a political organization born of the resistence movement during WWII. The same year, while unloading a ship, Ousmane Sembène broke his backbone. After a long recovery and now unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, with the support of his comrades, he was assigned a post as (aiguilleur), a switchman. A new opportunity was opened to Sembène to rise from a laborer who could read and hardly write, into a well-rounded intellectual, an exceptionally cultured humanist. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, Ousmane Sembène also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical” African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
Nowadays, in the United States and around the world, Sembène is best known as a filmmaker. However, it should be clear that even Sembène’s use of cinema is nothing but a compromise gesture to bring home what the widespread illiteracy in the continent would not allow him to accomplish in his literary work. It is through literature (or rather, it is because he failed to communicate with African “masses” through literature) that Sembène came to filmmaking, as a last resort. Sembène was nearly 40 when he decided to seek scholarships and go back to Europe and learn the technique of film making. In the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (hoping to extend its influence over Africa) was eager to oblige. Thus, in 1962, Sembène spent a year learning cinematography at the Gorki Studios in Moscow, under the tutelage of Soviet director Marc Donskoï. At the end of 1962, he returned to Senegal with his knowledge and an old Soviet camera. Sembène debuted his first feature film, La noire de… (Black Girl) in 1966, a prize-winning feature that put Africa on the map of world cinema. However, it was with Mandabi (The Money Order) in 1968, that Sembène’s dream to reconnect with Africa’s masses came through. For the first time, indeed, an African filmmaker was experimenting by using an African language (Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal), hence setting a new trend which would be followed by all filmmakers on the continent. In 1969 he released two shorts: Taumatisme de la femme face à la polygamie (Women and the Trauma of Polygamy), and Les dérives du chômage (The Afflictions of Unemployment). Two years later, in 1971 Sembène would adapt the short story Tauw and direct Emitaï, his first historical film, a dramatization of the forced conscription of Senegalese soldiers during WWII, followed by Basket Africain aux jeux olympiques de Munich, RFA (African Basketball in the Munich Olympic Games) in 1972, and L’Afrique aux Olympiades (Africa at the Olympic Games) in 1973. In 1974, Xala, an adaptation of his earlier 1973 novella would be released, followed by a controversial and internationally acclaimed historical film Ceddo, a re-writing of the history of Islam in Senegal. Camp de Thiaroye (1988) a sequel to Emitaï, centers around the massacre by French authorities of returning African soldiers from WWII.The award winning Guelwaar, une légende du 21 ème siècle (Guelwaar, a Legend of the 21st Century) would be released in 1993. Sembène would close the century with two films devoted to the struggle of African women: Héroisme au quotidien (Daily Heroism) in 1999, and Faat Kine in 2000 and open the new century with Moolaade in 2003 a crusade against a century-old practice of female circumcision which still plagues more than twenty-five out of the fifty -four African states recognized by the United Nations.” (Newsreel.org)
Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl
“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.
“Black Girl,” 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.
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. 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. 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.” (The New York Times)