“Is France that black hole?” a woman named Diouana asks, gazing through the window of her bedroom at a nighttime view of Antibes. She pauses, turning away. “What am I here?”
It is this question that propels the agonizing tension of director Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, otherwise titled La noire de… (1966). This is a film marked by the silent interrogation of its female lead and the troubling answers to her questions. In it Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), the protagonist, travels from Dakar to Antibes to work as a nanny for a white couple. Instantly it becomes clear she is a woman moored in opposing forces.
The 65-minute black and white film reflects in all aspects an emotional life engulfed by terrible zero-sum conflicts. The film tends to frame these diametric oppositions, like Sembène’s interweaving of African and Western music or the symbolic use of black and white, within the intersecting spheres of oppression. Through Sembène’s camera lens, we see it is the colonizing French society that obtrudes upon Senegalese society, which in turn pushes back on French society, resulting in confusion, war, and chaos. We see this just as we see Diouana’s hopes and desires squashed by the life of domesticity. And we see that just as we see the African woman lose her sense of self to a white man named Monsieur—a passive, benevolent patriarchal figure—but also to an embittered white woman Diouana only calls Madame.
Even through the title, best represented in its original French (translated as “The black girl of…”), it is made obvious that Diouana will be denied a self-determined identity in France. (Who is she the black girl of? The woman she calls only by formal address?) She is instead left to care for the couple’s young children, a burden she has to sustain in addition to her silent depression and growing, heated disillusionment. Thus the film generates its furious energy: the subordination of Diouana elicits in the viewer a strong yearning for her eventual freedom. She bears her work with simmering endurance, at the same time constantly revisiting and pondering her imprisonment. “Where are the people who live in this country?” she asks of the outside world. The bulk of the film makes us beg as she does for something to alleviate what, after just twenty minutes of interior shots of the French apartment, can feel like an endless entrapment.
What makes this film compelling, however, is not simply this bleak picture, but also its stark contrast to her former life in Senegalese society. Back in Senegal, Sembène shows us an ambitious, smiling Diouana. Senegal is rich in culture and history, but Sembène also shows us the dichotomy between the rich and poor, the literate and the illiterate, the naive political man and the uneducated woman. It is within this African nation that we witness yet more hierarchies of oppression, where certain financial, educational, and political opportunities are off-limits to the African woman.
While Sembène does a fantastic job of giving us her memories as a picture of Senegal, ties that are represented by an African mask that hangs on the apartment’s wall, we see that there is not much for her to reclaim from her home. Even though Dakar is the place where she overhears two politically minded men of the city telling one another “the future is black,” theirs is the kind of mobility she cannot reach because she is illiterate. So while Diouana in Antibes is sure her family believes she is chasing naïve, cosmopolitan dreams, she also knows returning to her limited offerings is not viable. It is through this carefully underscored bottom line that I understood the totality of Diouana’s predicament and the reason for the film’s progression.
As an African woman in college, I feel this film is rife with not only historically appropriate concerns, but also significant lessons for today’s social and political environment. Though the central drama could feel obvious to some, watching the film left me emotionally drained and numb in a way I had not expected. Mbissine Thérèse Diop’s portrayal of Diouana’s alienation begs us to challenge and examine the ways in which people endure crushing circumstantial otherness. The pivotal impact of such a film being authored by the Senegalese Sembène at a time when there existed a scarcity of such African cinema is not lost on me, but the film also made me consider modern immigrants—are our dreams of America poisoned by the same awful dread? In grappling with the complex issues of identity and colonial history that permeated his historical epoch, Sembène has provided us modern audiences with an invaluable blueprint for interpreting our own fraught environment.
Black Girl screened in a new restoration as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.