Sunday, April 30, 2017

#597: Black Girl

1966, TSPDT Rank #840

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is commonly known as the "father of African cinema" - and for good reason. He is responsible for a lot of firsts in the realm of African cinema: first short film by an African-born filmmaker (Borrom Sarret), first feature film by an African-born filmmaker (Black Girl, aka La Noire de...), first feature film in an African language (Mandabi), etc. So in this context, Black Girl would have been historically significant no matter what its content. However, Sembène rose to the occasion and used his first feature film (financed by the French Cultural Ministry) to convey a piercing allegorical vision of post-colonial Senegal-France relations. The film's protagonist, a young Senegalese woman named Diouanna, represents Senegal in this allegorical context, while her bourgeois French employers, who pay her way to Paris so she can become their housebound maid, represent France. The relationship of the French couple towards Diouanna is sickening and abhorrent - she is treated like an animal, and is expected to live a life which essentially constitutes domestic slavery.

But while the stark presentation of this abusive master-servant relationship would make an effective enough statement on its own, the structure of the film, which intersperses flashbacks from Diouanna's former life in Dakar with scenes from her life in France, makes the film's message infinitely more powerful. In these flashbacks, we see Diouanna's dreams and aspirations for a new life of excitement and freedom, which strike a harsh contrast with the inhumanity of her life in France. Even more importantly, we witness her initial disdain for her native culture, which leads her to see moving to France and experiencing its modern culture and elegance as a preferable alternative to the perceived dead ends of her own community. Of course, this is not what her experience turns out to be, and the juxtaposition of these two settings creates a shattering effect.

Ultimately, Black Girl concerns a tragic failure to connect, as the French and Senegalese characters each seem destined to project their own preconceived notions onto the other in perpetuity. Just as the Senegalese characters are seemingly unable to escape from a servile relationship with their former colonial masters and retrieve their culture from subjugation, the French characters seem doomed to be haunted by the spectre of their colonial injustices. Therefore, whatever opportunity there is for connection is ultimately squandered, as both sides settle into time-honored roles for reasons beyond their understanding. In its uncompromising portrayal of these themes, Ousmane Sembène's first feature film set a powerful precedent for the exploration of African post-colonialism which would remain a dominant focus in his work throughout his career.