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BLACK GIRL (LA NOIRE DE…) (director/writer: Ousmane Sembene; screenwriter: based on the novel by Ousmane Sembene; cinematographer: Christian Lacoste; editor: André Gaudier; cast: Mbissine Therese Dlop (Diouana/Black girl), Momar Nar Sene (Diouana’s Boyfriend), Annemairie Jelinek (Madam), Momar Narsene (Young Man), Robert Fontaine (Master), lbrahima (Boy with mask); Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: André Zwoboda; New Yorker Films; 1966-France/Senegal-in French with English subtitles)

One of the great early films from Senegalese novelist turned filmmaker Ousmane Sembene.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the great early films from Senegalese novelist turned filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (“Xala”/”Ceddo”/”Moolaadé“), who studied in Russia. This is Sembene’s impressive first feature, which was acclaimed at international film festivals. The uncomplicated but sincere black-and-white film follows in the style of the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism. It’s a bitter tale of a marginalized outsider unable to communicate her inner pain to those who hold power over her, which leads to a heart-wrenching melodrama about the destruction of the black girl from Dakar working as a maid for whites in Antibes.

Sembene fully commits to making films as seen through the eyes of the native African, as he’s steadfast in his wish to make his films uniquely African and not expressing European values. In Black Girl, Sembene exposes the European imperialistic racism that never vanished after his country became independent from France. The director shows the kind of racism that still prevails through a severe caricature of a dull, unsympathetic, and self-satisfied exploiting white French couple who make no effort to understand their vulnerable transplanted black worker and are only interested in her as a source of cheap labor. They are clueless about their biased attitude toward their black maid, as they have been conditioned to be racists all their life without realizing it and their expectations are to still reap the benefits they did as former imperialists. The master is considerate but too self-absorbed to see the pain in someone else, while his domineering bitchy wife is unfeeling, spoiled and selfish.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The impoverished and illiterate young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Therese Dlop), is grateful to get a job in Dakar as the nanny for the three children of a middle-class French couple (Annemairie Jelinek & Robert Fontaine). Diouana elatedly accepts an offer to work for the couple in the same capacity as a live-in maid in the French Riviera town of Antibes, and has her own room in the luxury hi-rise building where they dwell. But the black girl is disappointed that the couple have here a more modest living arrangements than their big house in Dakar. Anyway, the immature and unworldly black girl hopes to make her estranged family and friends in Dakar jealous that she’s living a cosmopolitan life in France and has money to buy pretty dresses. Soon Diouana feels imprisoned as a slave in the cramped apartment, as she cooks and cleans every day instead of minding children, who are away at boarding school, the kind of job she had with the family in Dakar and thought she signed on for the same job on the Riviera. Diouana sulks because she never has fun meeting other people or touring the strange country, and feels like a prisoner always staying home to do household chores. She has flashbacks about leaving her resentful nationalist boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) back home and thinks aloud to bitterly ask herself “Why am I here? I will not be her slave anymore.” Increasingly feeling all alone and resentful of the insensitive racist mistress who is always scolding her and unhappy about receiving a letter from her estranged mother asking for money, a deep despair overcomes the uncommunicative Diouana as she realizes the white bosses only see her as a thing and her family as a commodity. It tragically leads to her bloody suicide, where Diouana slashes her throat with a razor in the bathtub she so often had to clean. The guilt-stricken master visits the black girl’s mother in her shanytown residence to return her daughter’s few possessions and give her the wages she earned, but the money is refused and he leaves in a hurry because he’s not welcome. A little boy (lbrahima), Diouana’s younger brother, menacingly follows the fleeing frightened master across Dakar while donning an African tribal mask, a mask the boy owned but sold to Diouana to gave it to the couple as a gift because she was initially grateful for the job. The wearing of the mask in this scene signifies the overt anger still present in Senegal because of the harm still done to the native population despite decolonization, as it’s not ready to just be used as a display on a wall.

The political film is told as an emotionally moving deep character study, that has the ability to let everyone see what’s on the mind of a simple black girl who is just trying to make a better life for herself in a world that has a big class divide. That she can’t openly communicate her feelings to her obtuse white employers becomes for Sembene a sign of a cultural dislocation and a danger sign for any native African who looks with envy at Western culture as superior and wishes to assimilate to get ahead. Sembene’s message is for his people to not forget their rich traditions and have respect for their ancestral roots, even if the Europeans throw money at their feet and tempt them with their comfortable living conditions.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”