A landmark in the development of African cinema, the 1966 drama also inaugurated a new kind of story for European audiences, in which people from former colonies struggle to adapt to a world in which they are perpetually treated as marginal.
The tension between these two worlds is repeatedly underscored.
The most important examples are the traditional carved wooden mask that reappears at various moments in the story and the remarkable soundtrack played on the traditional Senegalese instrument called the kora.
Black Girl‘s protagonist, a young Senegalese woman named Diouana – brilliantly played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop – is thrilled when the French couple that employs her in Dakar wants to take her back home with them to their apartment on the French Riviera.
But once she gets there, the trouble begins.
Although Diouana was expecting to watch the couple’s children, as she had in Dakar, she learns that they are currently away at school.
Instead of the relatively pleasant job of childcare, which allowed her to spend lots of time outside, she is ordered to cook and clean like an ordinary servant.
When Diouana puts on the nice dress and shoes which her mistress gave her in Dakar, she is ordered to take them off.
The couple expects her to stay in the apartment. They don’t even pay her the wages they had promised until late in the film, after her discontent is too intense for them to ignore.
This sounds like the kind of simple story designed to elicit sympathy for its protagonist.
But Sembène has something more complex in mind.
Black Girl gives two different perspectives on its protagonist.
We witness scenes from Diouana’s life, both inside the French apartment and in mostly outdoor flashbacks from Dakar.
And we hear an interior monologue that comments on her predicament.
Crucially, this voice-over is situated in the film’s narrative present. In other words, she isn’t a narrator recounting a tale that has already come to an end.
Over the course of the film, Diouana realises that she is trapped in a double bondage, a prisoner of both her employers and her own dreams. But the only way out, she perceives, is self-destruction.
Sembène provides us with a “split-screen” perception. On the one hand, we see things the way Diouana does. On the other, we see what she cannot.
As she reflects on the chain of events that led her to France, it soon becomes apparent that she ignored one warning sign after another.
When Diouana’s mistress hires her in Dakar, selecting her from a group of women clamouring for a job, it’s because she is the only one who seems indifferent to the prospect.
Since we already know how bad things have become for Diouana by the time this flashback comes, we understand that the very detachment that made her stand out from the crowd of indigenous women is what makes her vulnerable to exploitation.
When she thinks “I’m alone” in her employers’ French apartment, her isolation represents the obverse of the liberation from colonial existence to which she aspired back home in Senegal.
Later in the film, a sequence that takes place shortly prior to her departure from Dakar reinforces the impression that she has a superiority complex that will lead to her downfall.
It begins after we see Diouana sitting in tears on her bed in the French apartment. “Why did I want to come to France?” she asks herself.
We then cut to a close-up of a sign reading “PLACE DE L’INDEPENDANCE”, then to one of her walking towards the camera holding hands with a man.
As the flashback unfolds, it becomes clear that she has decided to go to France at the expense of their relationship.
But this independence proves to be a double-edged sword. It helps her break free of a society she feels ambivalent towards but at the expense of the support network she took for granted.
After looking around at the high-rise apartments surrounding a modern square in central Dakar, so different from the rickety structures of her own densely inhabited neighbourhood on the city’s outskirts, Diouana asks her boyfriend whether he thinks France is prettier.
“How do I know,” he replies testily. “I’ve never been there.”
Nor has Diouana, obviously. But that doesn’t stop her from supposing that the proverbial grass is greener in the land of the colonisers.
An interior monologue also accompanies this sequence. But it is on a different timeline than the one in the film’s narrative. The thoughts Sembène reveals are the ones that Diouana had before leaving Dakar.
In the flashback, when Diouana tells her boyfriend that she is moving to France at her mistress’s request, she notes that he will be angry with her.
“He’s going to say that’s domestic slavery,” she adds, mirroring the conclusion she reached a few minutes before while reflecting on her predicament in her employers’ apartment when her voice-over declares that she is a “prisoner” and a “slave”.
In the final scene from this sequence, Diouana has returned to her boyfriend’s apartment. The decor suggests that he is self-consciously political in ways that she is not.
Although she eventually takes off her dress for him, Diouana remains preoccupied with her impeding departure for France. In her mind, Senegal and its people have already been consigned to the past.
While Sembène makes us feel for Diouana, he also makes us feel against her.
Her fantasy of France isn’t shared by other members of her community in Dakar, at least not fully. It’s not hard to see that the life of glamour and excitement she hopes to find there is extremely unrealistic.
Had she paid closer attention to her employers’ lives while they were still in Dakar, she might have realised that even white people with a comfortable bourgeois existence in the south of France have to deal with the mundane demands of existence.
Black Girl leaves no doubt that Diouana’s misery is primarily the product of structural inequalities and historical oppression.
But her response to these conditions is also part of the problem.
Diouana’s sullenness repudiates the sort of characterisation that we often see in narratives – particularly in those made by white people – designed to make us feel sorry for the plight of marginal groups.
Because Diouana won’t bend to the will of anybody who wants to control her, she ultimately takes her life.
In the final sequence of the film, we watch her French master nervously wind his way through the crowd to her home in Dakar, carrying Diouana’s suitcase and the wooden mask she had once given to him and his wife. When he reaches Diouana’s mother, he offers to pay money to compensate for her death.
But this gesture, however sincere it may be, is repulsed.
Throughout this sequence, he is the only white man in the frame, wearing sunglasses that further accentuate his difference.
Is this trip an act of penance? Just common decency?
It feels as though this journey is a stand-in for the one that white audiences in France and beyond must make in the film, recognising their complicity in the circumstances that led to Diouana’s suicide.
The return of the mask indicates an awareness of the way in which European colonisation led to the expropriation and decontextualisation of ritual objects from colonised cultures.
Diouana didn’t see much of France, but her employer has to come to terms with Senegal.
Photograph courtesy of New Yorker Films. Published under a Creative Commons license.