Having taught several of Ousmane Sembène’s films to college students, I’ve found Black Girl (1966) to be less popular with that audience than some of the Senegalese filmmaker’s later works. Many students enjoy the farcical humor of the neocolonial critique Xala (1975) and the move from satire to pathos in the tragic colonial critique Camp de Thiaroye (1988). Faat Kiné’s (2001) glossy no-holds barred woman-gets-hers, a mode recently performed in Beyonce’s Lemonade, for example, and Laura Mvula’s “Phenomenal Woman,” tends to be relatively easy for contemporary film novices to appreciate at a political and aesthetic level. In contrast, Black Girl, a feature film about a Senegalese nanny turned maid’s spiral into depression after she moves to France with her entitled employers, challenges students accustomed to expensively produced plot-driven films. The production values of Sembène’s early film instead exemplifies an “aesthetics of hunger” and a skillfully “imperfect cinema,” to use the language of Third Cinema manifestos by Glauber Rocha and Julio García Espinosa. Although some students appreciate the cinematography and a few react to the everyday racism its protagonist faces, many students label it poorly made, others complain about imperfections in the synchronization of the sound, and many dislike the employer’s supposedly unmotivated cruelty and (spoiler alert!) the protagonist’s tragic end.
The conditions for the film’s production were less than ideal. Starting with a novella by the same name, Sembene used a camera acquired from the Soviet Film School where he was trained for his early films. The equipment and budget available to him were inadequate to include sync sound, however, which he compensated for by providing a voice-over narration of protagonist Diouana’s thoughts (played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop). This concession to the limitations of making a film in a context of poverty and lack nonetheless adapts the first-person narration of the novella in a more faithful way than tends to happen in film adaptations of literature. This produces a literary film, where the voice-over narration weighs as heavily as the cinematography and editing. The audience is in Diouana’s head as she is continually dehumanized by her employers, who interpret her resistance as either illness or insanity. Any objectification of Diouana that our voyeuristic gaze as a distanced audience may produce is destabilized by her thoughts being in our heads. Her point of view carries us through the film, occupying a centrality in terms of screen time and narrative voice still often denied Africans represented on screen (not to mention African women).
To appreciate Black Girl, imperfectly translated as such from La Noire de… (literally, “[someone’s] black female …” or “the black female [from] …”), requires some historical knowledge, some experience with alternative cinematic genres, and an attentive frame of mind. The film’s slow pace, similar to many Third Cinema and neorealist works, requires patience. Its representation of the everyday racism and neocolonial exploitation that the protagonist faces is better appreciated with some understanding of the history of the French territorial and ideological colonization that preceded Senegal’s independence in 1959, and of France’s reluctant withdrawal from Algeria and its other colonies. The film’s significance, recognized in its recent restoration by Janus Films and currently screening at BAMcinématek, depends on its style and historical context. It also depends on the film’s legacy. With Black Girl, a sub-Saharan black African Marxist entered the feature filmmaking ranks in a move that challenged the ruling exploitative hierarchies and promised the incisively political oeuvre that Sembène indeed went on to write and direct. It also inspired some of the ground-breaking works of African-American cinema, from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) to Julie Dash’s Daughters of Dust (1991) (also, significantly, being digitally restored and re-released by the Cohen Film Collection). The award winning film is worth a patient watch or re-watch, to appreciate its study in visual contrasts and its quiet challenge to neocolonial tendencies still relevant today. For those of you in Brooklyn, take advantage of its theatrical screening through May 24th.