White girl Judge Jennifer Malkowski highly recommends this haunting drama, the first feature film made by a black, sub-Saharan African.
"The mask is mine…I'm not my mistress's plaything."
Released in 1965, Black Girl was the first feature from the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. Though he is still making quality films today, this one remains one of his very best for the simple elegance of its emotional and political impact.
Facts of the Case
Black Girl is the story of Diouana, a young woman from Senegal who comes to the French Riviera to work for a vacationing white family. Diouana is the "Black Girl" of the title, and she soon discovers just how much her blackness matters when her employers are mean, condescending, and misleading about the nature of her job. Her increasing feelings of isolation and anger compel her to strike back against the white family and all they represent in a desperate act of defiance.
This DVD also includes Borom Sarret, a 20-minute short that Sembene released a year earlier. This film is set entirely in Diouana's home town, Dakar, and follows a poor, local cart driver through his day.
One subtly brilliant detail of Black Girl speaks volumes about the politics of the film, even though one could almost write it off as a technical flaw: the "improper" lighting and exposure of Diouana in her white employers' French apartment. Her skin is extremely dark and I almost thought it was an amateur mistake that Sembene just couldn't quite light her enough to show her features. But watching her blend into the dark floor tiles or coffee table and flatten like a two-dimensional cutout against the pearly white walls, I realized that it could be gracefully symbolic of her status in this white environment. She is like negative space or a mere prop to the white people, noticeable only when her exotic skin color impresses guests or when she refuses to serve them. This easy black-and-white filming technique makes a more effective statement about racial and colonial politics than a hundred more lines of dialogue about it would.
That detail is representative of the greatest strength of Black Girl: its ability to convey complex social commentary and political realities through a simple narrative, haunting imagery, and well-chosen music. At times, Sembene strays from this approach with over-the-top moments such as the one in which a guest of the white family says Africans can understand French by instinct, "like animals." Perhaps this comment is realistic, but it accomplishes much less, somehow, than the less overt racism of other guests who speak as if Diouana is not in the room and ask to kiss her, because they've "never kissed a black woman!" In the dinner party scene, Diouana is treated "like an animal" without the words being said, but she suffers condescension rather than outright cruelty. The guests and hosts alike prize her like a rare beast for her "genuine African[ness]."
Similarly, Diouana's tragedy is also brought about not by outright cruelty, but by enforced isolation and cultural suffocation. She has almost no dialogue, but a running internal monologue in which she thinks about her current situation and longs for her old life in Dakar—accompanied by flashbacks. Overloaded with housework and too intimidated and busy to go exploring alone, she thinks to herself, "For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom" and laments that, "It's because I can't write…that's why I'm their slave!" As we see her wasting away, unable to communicate to her employers the thoughts to which we are privy, her story becomes agonizing and sorrowful. All the emotions she feels—joy, nostalgia, anger, depression—are heightened by the beautiful soundtrack which plays different kinds of Senegalese music almost nonstop throughout the film.
Borom Sarret feels like a rough draft of Black Girl in many ways. The protagonist is male this time, and the film is set entirely in Dakar. But the same internal monologue structure and themes of the oppression of poor blacks there and the need for education are present. The story is even simpler, and the messages are a bit clumsily didactic. It is interesting to see how Sembene honed his craft in the interim between the two films, but Borom Sarret is not a great stand-alone work.
This transfer seems to have been made from a decent print, and the sound quality is about what you'd expect for a low-budget, art-house 1960s film. There are the usual scratches on the print with some occasional streaking or other damage, but the contrast holds up well to the original. The print of Borom Sarret is quite clean, but somewhat lacks contrast. The disc offers no extras, but it does have the original language tracks with optional English subtitles and chapter selection; there's Dolby Digital stereo, but the details weren't available. Frankly, I can't count the lack of extras against this DVD because I'm grateful to distributors like New Yorker for putting films like Black Girl out on DVD at all. For me, it's enough to have the disc and that it has been transferred from a pretty good print.
It may not have flawless picture or sound quality or any extras, but Black Girl is such a great film that this disc is well worth viewing or purchasing anyway. This tragic tale of an African woman undone by her employment in a white French home has the too-rare combination of a great story and pronounced politics.
Judge Malkowski clears Black Girl of all charges and commends Ousmane Sembene for giving African filmmaking a great start.
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