BLACK GIRL, drama, not rated, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
Black Girl is a quietly masterful film. Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembène chose a maid as the film’s protagonist, a woman who normally — at least in 1966, when the film was made — would have remained in the background. But almost everything about what Sembène was doing at the time was revolutionary: He was filming stories from an African — not a European — perspective. A young woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) lives in Dakar, and she wants work. When she knocks on doors to see if anyone needs a maid, one door gets slammed in her face; a dog barks her away from another. Diouana is undeterred. She begins to wait in a square where people come to look for maids. Her quiet dignity helps her secure a job at the house of a rich French couple with three children. The same quiet dignity will later be violated, when her employer, Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) turns into a nag.
After some time in Dakar, Madame invites Diouana to work for the family in France. Thrilled at the opportunity, Diouana leaves her native Senegal for France, where she arrives, clueless and alone. In the French Riviera, Madame and Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) do nothing to help her adjust. While they are not perversely cruel, sometimes apathy can be a form of cruelty. Diouana was so excited about coming to France that she came dressed as an elegant lady. Now, as she mops the floors, Madame chides her that she has been dressed in the same way for the last three weeks, as though for a party. That may be true. But for Diouana, the party never begins. Her spirit is crushed by the boredom and repetitive nature of her work as a housemaid. The children are presumably away at school. Her domain consists of the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedrooms, and she must circle those realms endlessly. Not surprisingly, she begins to waste away. When Monsieur offers her more money, it is a futile remedy that comes too late.
As the story progresses, Sembène makes brilliant use of an African mask to illuminate the complex forces at work here. The film is set in postcolonial Africa, and Diouana and her boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene), whom she has left behind in Dakar, have conflicting attitudes about whether or not to work for a white man, and whether or not such work constitutes slavery. When Diouana first got her job, she purchased the mask from a little boy, promising to pay him when she got her first wages. It speaks to Diouana’s generosity that on her first day at work, she gifts the mask to Madame. “It’s the real thing,” her employers exclaim about the mask. The intriguing mask travels to France with the family, and Diouana will one day try to get it back.
Diouana’s disillusionment with France — “Is this black hole France?” — reflects the initial disillusionment of any immigrant who leaves behind a vibrant community to enter the seemingly more sterile environment of a Western country. As Diouana sees it, in France, everyone’s door is closed. Where are the people? Where are the children? Diouana is never able to get past her disillusionment. Sembène’s use of voiceover as a technique to give Diouana a voice is an inspired choice.
Because Diouana hardly speaks a word during her time in France, the insistent chorus that follows Monsieur at the end of the film in Dakar, when he runs away from a little boy wearing a mask, is especially haunting. Monsieur may be running away from his guilt, for treating Diouana as someone who is less than human. In the final scene, when the boy takes off his mask, the image is rich with meaning. We are at once reminded of Diouana’s childlike spiritedness, and how food and wages alone could never have sustained her in France. This short, compact film is able to convey two worlds — Senegal and France — and Diouana’s inner world in the space of a little over an hour.
Black Girl plays as part of the Auteur Series at the Center for Contemporary Arts. The feature will be preceded by a 1963 Sembène short, Borom Sarret (The Wagoner), a devastating piece about a day in the life of an impoverished wagon-driver. The short can also be seen an allegory of a dysfunctional economy and a corrupt system. The wagoner drives people around town every day in his horse-driven cart, but money is hard to come by. In the morning, when the wagoner leaves home, his wife gives him what little money they have left. It is up to him now to bring back wages so that his wife and baby will have something to eat. But not all his customers pay him, and he is inspired to handsomely tip a singer — and then things get exceedingly difficult. It seems like yesterday and the day before weren’t much better, either.
The films will be introduced by Jason Silverman, the director of a biographical film, Sembène! (2015), that opens windows into filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s ways of thinking, in addition to contextualizing the political environment he was working in, and showing what obstacles — including censorship and corruption — he was up against. In its third year, The Auteurs series celebrates “the world’s essential filmmakers, with a focus on classic, hard-to-see films.” Cinephiles who have not previously encountered Sembène’s work are in for a treat. — Priyanka Kumar
Africa dreaming: Mbissine Thérèse Diop