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Black Girl

May 2, 2020

Black Girl (1966)
Director: Ousmane Sembène
Actors: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine

Ousmane Sembène's 'Black Girl' Turns 50 - The New York Times

Synopsis: Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is a young Senegalese woman who has arrived in France to continue her maid duties for a young French family. Her frustrations with her role juxtapose to her previous life in Senegal and how she was recruited for the role in the first place.

Review: A searing fusion of sadness and anger erupts in this deeply intelligent discourse on post-colonialism by Ousmane Sembène – the man tagged as being the ‘father of African cinema’ who was making his feature film debut here.

Taking as his protagonist young and gauche Senegalese maid, Diouana, as she arrives on the Côte d’Azur for what she believes will be a glamorous time as maid for a wealthy French family, her growing dissatisfaction and loss of agency becomes the moral centre of the film. That ire is signalled brilliantly by Sembène through his use of voiceover to reflect Diouana’s inner monologue. While on the surface she might be demure and servile with her perpetual responses of “oui monsieur” and “oui madame”, beneath she is a torrent of rage, bemoaning her drudgery and sense of entrapment.

Sembène also juxtaposes her previous life in Dakar to offer insight into her present-day frustrations in France. The malignancy of colonial influence is already prevalent in Diouana’s psyche in the way that she fantasises about the increase in social and financial status that her association with a French family will entail. An authentic African mask becomes the motif for Diouana’s lost soul, as she initially buys it as a gift for her French family. They parade it in their Antibes apartment as some form of bourgeois badge of accomplishment, but its presence soon comes to haunt Diouana – a reminder of the sterility of her life in France and the battle taking place inside her own conscience. The mask even makes a sly return in the film’s final scene when Diouana’s French master is almost hounded out of Dakar after going to visit her family.

Perhaps the scene that is the most touching of all though is when Diouana is read a letter, allegedly from her mother, by her French masters. Literacy is always a key theme in post-colonial works, and Diouana’s illiteracy is especially meaningful here. She has lost control of her ability to even commune with her family, and when her masters offer to write her reply (and start doing so without her prompts anyway), it seems to be the catalyst towards Diouana’s final, tragic act of escape. (May 2020)

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