The opening shot of Black Girl, Ousmane Sembene’s first feature length film that won the 1966 Prix Jean Vigo award and lead to Sembene becoming known as “the father of African film”, features a long shot of a cruise ship pulling into a French harbor. Men anchor the boat to port, as Sembene immediately cuts to a mid-panning-shot of a black girl walking through a room with her suitcase. The next shot is a long, low-angle that looks up at the walkway connecting the ship to the port, the next is a close-up of the girl’s face scanning the area, asking “Will someone be waiting for me?” The next several shots are of the girl walking through a crowd of people, metaphorically being swallowed up in the new world in which she’s nervously walking into. As she gets into the car sent to pick her up, the trendy French music that will become a theme in the film accompanies images of that new world from her perspective in the car.
As we later learn, that girl is Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senagalese woman from Dakar who has been hired by a French bourgeois, white couple to be a caretaker for the Madame’s (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and Monsieur’s (Robert Fontaine) three children. Eventually, the couple moves from Dakar back to France and requests that Diouana come with them. She agrees, but finds herself being a maid, cook and practically a slave in France, even though she had dreamed of living the cosmopolitan life that the Madame had promised. With her illiteracy, Diouana is literally trapped inside the walls of her employers’ house, only being able to glimpse France from the window. The film chronicles her memories of life in Dakar, both before and after her employment, as well as her inner monologues that serve as poignant contrast to what we’re being shown on screen.
The opening sequence itself is indicative of the spatial disorientation that’s pervasive in the film, expressing Diouana’s fractured apprehension of the new world she’s entering, while allowing Sembene to editorially narrate the viewer’s much broader perspective on the events, while still being sympathetic with the protagonist. Later, the temporal shifts are equally disorienting, signaled by nothing more than quick fades, which finds the film slipping in and out of three distinct periods: Diouana’s impoverished life in Dakar with her mother and boyfriend, her employment in Dakar and her depressive, oppressive situation in France. It’s an ambitious, complex balancing act for a director’s first feature film, and yet there’s an incisiveness and self-assurance, characterized by an almost paradoxical viciousness directed at the racial tensions and dehumanizing effects of African colonialism, as well as a quiet humanism reminiscent of the sociocultural observations of Satyajit Ray.
Sembene doesn’t limit the expressiveness to just time, space and the visual language, as Diouana’s voice-over paints a rich, vivid portrait of her inner world that serves as the emotional anchor of the film and contrasts with Diouana’s muteness. Diop’s nuanced voice control effortlessly takes us from Diouana’s historical autobiography, to her elation when she first finds out she’s moving to France, to her anxiety of the move itself, to her deepening depression and finally to her righteous, proud indignation. Much like the voice-over, the music presents another aural guide through the film. The scenes in Dakar are paired with lovely African folk music of a lute-like instrument and singer. France and the white couple are paired with a trendier piano tune that perfectly captures the indifferent snobbery of the setting. After Diouana’s move to France, the African folk music is pared down to the instrument, stripped of its voice, and is frequently overcome by the French tune; a subtle metaphor for the post-colonial loss of identity and Diouana, who has lost her own voice.
At times, Sembene is masterful at combining all of these elements—space, perspective, time, sound and music. An early example finds Diouana going about her chores, lamenting that this is not what she was hired for, while accompanied by the lute. The Madame demands she cook a meal for a party she and her husband are throwing later. Diouana does, and the camera stays with her for a while, but eventually settles behind the table, with the kitchen in the background and the couple and their friends in the foreground. But Diouana’s optimistic voice-over, expressing her dreams about eventually seeing France, continues along with the African music, even after she serves dinner and walks out of the room. The camera stays on the couple and her friends, and is suddenly overtaken by the French music and the chatter, which couldn’t be less concerned about Diouana as an individual, but only as the Africans as a primal stereotype.
Other scenes find the disjunction more ambiguous, such as when Diouana describes her old life in Dakar, waiting on the street corners to be hired on a job. Sembene cuts to an extremely high angled shot of her waiting with the other women as Diouana goes on to describe how many times the sun has passed over head (connecting the voice-over description to the camera angle itself). When Diouana is eventually hired, her excitement practically bursts off the screen as she runs back to tell her mother, excitedly racing around her wearing a traditional African mask she had bought for herself—the same one that she later gives to the Madame, and the one that will play a crucial role in the film’s final scene. Another, slightly lesser example has Diouana staring in wonderment at the stream of water spraying back and forth across the camera from a lawn sprinkler, which turns out to be one of the most subtly happy moments in the film.
The film also creates some subtly poignant parallels. In one scene, Diouana’s desire to live the life of a fine lady has her trying on a pair of her Madame’s high heels, which she is immediately ordered to take off. Sembene follows her bare feet as she walks dejectedly into the next room. A few scenes later, Diouana is out with her boyfriend, excited about her impending move to France. She’s so excited that she takes off her shoes to dance on top of a stone memorial erected for those that died in the African civil war, before she’s scolded by her boyfriend to come down and that it’s sacrilege. The implications of the two scenes are immense, enfolding African tradition and modernism, class struggles, the heights of happiness and the lows of depression, all into a motif involving Diouana’s feet.
But the scene that splits the above two serves as the most emotionally devastating in the film. Diouana is called in by her employers so they can read a letter sent by her mother. The Monsieur reads the letter, which turns out to be a harsh castigation and plea from the writer to Diouana to send some money home because they are in desperate need of it. The tension in the scene is palpable, and Sembene finally indulges in one of the first close-ups in the film to Diouana’s face that begins to fill with tears. She squeezes her eyes shut, and her angry voice-over says that the letter is not from her mother, her Madame is not a great lady and she refuses to stay any longer. As she rushes into the next room, Sembene’s camera follows her in that close-up, with blown-out white light invading from the background.
When Diouana finally decides to leave, she packs up her bags and prepares to take her mask with her, but she and her Madame fight over it. Each grabs hold of a side and spin around in a tug of war, reminding us of the scene in which Diouana spun around her mother wearing the mask, except this time it’s the camera moving as well, increasing the dynamic drama. Diouana finally takes back the mask, and the Monsieur pays her, but Diouana breaks down in tears, finally feeling the full impact of her isolation and the dissolution of her dreams. What is there left to go back to? What is there left to go forward to? As Diouana’s indignation reaches its height, she proudly returns both the apron and the money, resolved to free herself from a life where there seems to be no hope for prosperity and happiness.
Some will undoubtedly have difficulty apprehending Diouana’s decision, but if you turn to an earlier film of Sembene’s, Borom Sarret (The Wagoner; a short film added as an extra on the New Yorker DVD release of Black Girl), one almost finds the reason for it there. Borom Sarret chronicled a day in the life of a poor wagoner, struggling to make ends meet and finding himself trampled on by the literate upper class who freely take advantage of his services without repaying them. When he drops one customer off he hears a man singing, and his voice-over says: “Who’s singing about my ancestors? The brave warriors of the past? Their blood flows in my veins. Even if this new life enslaves me, I am still noble!” While Borom Sarret doesn’t end in the same tragic mode as Black Girl, those words echo so strongly in the latter that one could practically hear Diouana saying them.
The ending, however, finds Sembene in his most haunting, mystical mode. The couple returns to Dakar and the Monsieur takes Diouana’s possessions and mask back to her family. He tries to pay her mother, but she refuses the money. The child—the same one that, earlier, had been scolded for playing with Diouana’s mask—takes up the mask, puts it on, and follows the Monsieur all the way back to the boat as an African choral music piece plays on the soundtrack. As the Monsieur nears his destination, Sembene seems to cut faster and closer, heightening the sense of danger. Even though the Monsieur leaves (perhaps escapes), the film ends with a close-up of the boy removing the mask, revealing his face, which, along with the choral music, seems to encapsulate all of colonial Africa as a whole, as well as the individual identity getting destroyed because of it.
Even though Sembene’s most praised films, especially Xala and Ceddo, were to come later, the earlier Black Girl is still a near-masterpiece of early African filmmaking. It’s a dense, difficult and subtle film that definitely rewards rewatches as there’s simply too much going on under the placid, even dull surface to notice on first viewing. It’s remarkable how much content Sembene has packed into a film that lasts little more than an hour, but it’s proof that you don’t need great length and plot complexity to pack an emotional and thematic wallop into a film.