Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, livingroom. That’s all I ever see.
Black Girl (La Noire de…) is a french-Senegal film from 1966 by director/writer Ousmane Sembène. Based on a short story he wrote. The movie is about a young women named Diouana, played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, who immigrates from Dakar to Antibes in France to work for Madame.
The plot follows a nonlinear structure (in medias res) and starts with Diouana arriving in France, where she is picked-up by the husband of Madame called Monsieur in the story. Important to note is that we never really get to know the real names of Madame and Monsieur, they seem to portray something more than just their own character. They are the embodiment of the Bourgeoisie. Ousmane Sembène who was a Marxist, studied film in the Soviet-Union and was a member of the communist party, also used these ideologies in his writings and movies. Where the stories are more centered around groups instead of individual drama, or where an individual is representing a group. Like Diouana represents the people of Senegal or Africa.
Diouana, who already has worked for Madame back in Senegal where she took care of her kids, goes to France with the expectations to live a new and luxurious life. Which we all learn from flashbacks. But when she arrives at the apartment nothing goes as expected. She gets treated harsh and only has to work. She is not even allowed to go outside. When she tries to wear a fancy dress and high heels, Madame gets upset and gives her an apron to wear, telling her “don’t forget that you are a maid”. Diouana becomes increasingly aware the oppression, social alienation and exploitation. At one of the dinner parties she gets kissed on the cheek by a man, explaining “I’ve never kissed a black girl before!” and when they are dining, prepared by Diouana, they are pointing out that the rice is very good because “Africans all eat rice”.
Instead of becoming more aggressive and angrier, Diouana becomes more passive and refuses to work. Madame tells her if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t eat. In one desperate attempt Monsieur and Madame fake a letter, supposed to be written by the mother of Diouana. But Diouana tears the letter in disbelieve and still refuses to work or to be oppressed. Then, in the climax of the movie, Diouana takes her own life. A story that made it to the paper in Antibes. This final climax sadly really happened and was the inspiration for Ousmane Sembène to write his book, where the movie was based on. He tried to looks beyond the news article and see how the lady must have felt, he gave the story meaning.
Throughout the movie there is one important motif, in form of a traditional African mask. This mask is bought by Diouana from a little boy in Senegal and later given as a present to Madame, for giving her the opportunity to work for her. Soon this mask is derived from all meaning and merely a souvenir hanging on the white wall in Antibes. As time passes and Diouana becomes more aware of her situation, this mask becomes a representation of her longings for home and old traditions. She tears the mask of the wall in the final act, and says that the mask doesn’t belong to them. She commits suicide. Monsieur decides to take her belonging and the mask back to Senegal, to give it to her mother. Monsieur tries to give the mother also the money belonging to Diouana, but knowing it’s dirty, she doesn’t accept it. The mask is picked up by a little boy and he chases Monsieur out of the village, while holding the mask in front of his face. Symbolizing the past of Africa haunting its colonizers. Traditional mask often symbolized the dead ancestors. This mask also symbolized Diouana’s homecoming. Although not physically, her spirit did make it back to Senegal.
The movie won the Prix Jean Vigo for best feature film in 1966, bringing international attention to film in Senegal and Africa in general. There were films made in Senegal before 1966 mostly in form of newsreels even some feature films, but it was not allowed for someone native from Senegal to make a movie, before their independence in 1960. They were not even allowed to speak in their mother tongue, they had to speak the colonizers language french. Whilst ousmane sembène spend most of his time in France, he did felt more connected to Senegal. He tried to reach the people in Senegal through his writings, but most of them were illiterate except for the elites. So he tried it through film. Black Girl was the first fill to really show the Senegal slums and poverty. It was the first film with a black lead and she wasn’t depicted as a racial stereotype. The second feature film after Black Girl, called Mandabi (1968), was the first film in Wolof language. He continued making movies till 2003, all with social commentary. The father of African film died on the 9th of June 2007.
“La Noire de…” meaning “Black Girl from…”, sadly translated to Black Girl which makes it lose its meaning, is an extremely powerful and thought provoking movie. Continuing in the ideas of Italian neorealism, with the use of non-professional actors and shooting on location, he showed that cinema can flourish in any part of the world. And showed the complex dynamic between Senegal and its colonizer.