Monday, December 6, 2010

Black Girl (1966)

La noire de...
Director: Ousmane Sembène
55-65 min
Starring: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek and Robert Fontaine, among others.

I really enjoyed the Christmas food discussions in the comment section of my last post! Thank you, readers. I had no idea it could differ that much from one side of the world to the other.

And from one side of the world to another, that's where the protagonist of Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl goes (yes, that was a lame transition, but I blame it on the brisk Christmas spirit that has annexed my soul). The film, which original French title translates as "The Black Girl of...", is an obvious but subtle and artistic reminder of colonialism, post-colonial identity, racism and slavery.

[It's so fun reading the forums on IMDb: someone was angry because the main character once says that she feels like a slave (or is a slave, I don't remember exactly), when she actually gets paid for her work. Well, dear stupid, you can get all the money in the world and still be treated as a slave. It's about the loss of dignity and respect. Duh.]

Black Girl is considered the first feature length film of a Sub-Saharan director (Senegal), which is pretty shocking considering it was made in 1966. The year my mother was born was the year of the first indigenous Senegalese picture. Well, France didn't recognize the independence of Senegal until 1960, so what is one to expect. Obviously the French Film Bureau tried to get in the way of this film being made, and later purchased its exhibition rights. It seems they put the scissors to work on the negatives too - the film is only one hour long, and I read about a missing color sequence.

"The black girl" is a Senegalese woman named Diouanna, and she is also the only character with a name in the film. She arrives full of expectations in France to work as a bay sitter for a French family, but is soon faced with the fact that she is just a common maid. She tries to keep some sense of worthiness by dressing up, wearing high heels and jewelry, while being treated as a dumb slave. Naturally, the lack of respect from her "masters" drives her into a depression, further nurturing the stereotype of "the lazy coon". She stops wearing her pretty clothes or doing her hair. Eventually Diouanna, who has only seen the walls of the very apartment where she works of the Western world she hopes to discover, is driven to suicide. This is mentioned in a little notice in the newspaper.

[As others before me, I feel that spoiling the end has any impact what so ever on the viewing experience. It's not that kind of film. The original short story (written by Sembene himself) began with a black maid's suicide, then unfolding the events leading up to it - apparently it was just a short notice of a similar accident reported in a newspaper that inspired Sembene to write it in the first place.]

Diouanna narrates the film in French, like an inner monologue. She keeps angrily reassuring herself that she is not a maid, while cleaning the floors in complete 1960's polka dot outfit worthy of Audrey Hepburn. The narration makes the behaviour of some house guests bizarre, who seem to take for granted that she can't speak French. The hostess and her guests arrive at the explanation that Diouanna does not speak French, but can understand it instinctively "comme un animal" ("like an animal"). Diouanna keeps silent and pours up coffee for the guests.

 One noted interesting aspect of the film is the fact that Diouanna's motives for coming to France are purely shallow - she keeps repeating to herself what she believes that those back in Dakar (the capital of Senegal) thinks of her, and how envious they are of her opportunity to come to France. However, as the psychological abuse continues those thoughts seem more and more tragic. At one time she inspects an African mask she gave her employers on the first day of work, that looks strangely out of place on the blank white wall:

As is apparent from the screenshots, Sembène has played with stark contrasts in the visual narrative. Black against white all the time, and that is not just because the film is in black and white. Diouanna wears a white dress with black polka dots, a black African mask against a clean white wall, floors striped in black and white, a whiskey with the lable "Black and White"... I could go on. It is in any way both aesthetically appealing and a clear metaphor for the theme of the film.

The whole film is full of symbols and metaphors, like the flashback scene where Diouanna gets her job as a maid. Women looking for a job are gathered in the street, while the future employer walk back and forth eying them - it all resembles a slave market. Another symbolic scene is with Diouanna skipping barefoot over a colonialist war memorial in Dakar - much to her boyfriend's dismay.

I can also mention Diouanna's hot politically active boyfriend in the flashback scenes. (See screenshot - Damn! More bare chested men, please.). Some inside information: the man on the wall of his room is nationalist hero Patrice Lumumba, and the school teacher with the pipe in Dakar is Sembène himself.

As for the white characters, none are actually demonized in any way, and that is probably the most effective part of this movie. (All actors are non-professional, by the way. Most only have one film listed at IMDb. Pretty admirable performances, considering that.) As vicious as the wife may seem, she actually seems mentally ill. She smokes frustratingly and seems to get something out of treating Diouanna more and more inhumane, which makes her look more pathetic and in need of help than demonic.

The saddest character, apart from Diouanna, is the oblivious husband. He has a drinking problem and seems to think that money solves everything. At least that is the only solution to a sad maid that he can find. He does not realize how his actions are condescending and paternalistic, only trying to do right.

The worst moment of his good intentions degrading Diouanna is when she receives a letter from her mother. As she is illiterate, the husband offers to read it to her. The letter shows to include mostly reprimands about her not sending money home - a humiliating moment the husband obliviously turns to the worse by starting to write a response letter for Diouanna.

When Diouanna has committed suicide, he understands that the right thing to do is probably to visit her mother in Senegal. He does however not understand what to do when he has arrived, and tried to give Diouanna's mother money. Although she probably needs the money, she shakes her head and denies what is probably understood as a payment for guilt. He returns home, and the last pictures of the film shows a little boy looking into the camera, literally unmasking his face. Such symbolism.

I liked the film, by the way. Watch it if you get the chance.


expat@large said...

Ah the masks - yes, there are actual people behind them.

Robert said...

One minor consideration: having never seen the film, your post has piqued my interest in it, BUT, describing the entire film (even down to the suicide at the end) leaves little to the imagination. Perhaps keep in mind that not everyone has seen the films you describe and want to experience them for the first time as you did--on the screen.
That said, I love your blog, and your sensibilities. Thank you.