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Black Girl (Sembène, 1966)

Black Girl written and directed by Ousmane Sembène is a Senegalese film from 1966. Though the film is set in Senegal and France the message is still relevant to the state of race in the United States fifty-one years after it was released. There’s a divide between black spaces and white spaces even when the characters’ are sharing the screen and it’s surprising that the power dynamics represented in the film are still in effect today. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise since both France and the United States have a history of colonialism and colonial roots run deep.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop plays Diouana, the titular character, who leaves Senegal to take care of two French children as a governess. As she begins her position in France she is immediately treated as a housemaid where cooking and cleaning become primary duties instead of taking care of the children. Diouana does not speak French though she understands it well (Senegal was a French colony with the strongest French presence in French West Africa until the 1960s when it and other African colonies gained independence). Because of this she is considered “like an animal” which is a disgusting way to refer to humans who you have tried to force your language, culture, and ways of living on. Diouana, when referring to the children’s parents in the narrative, utilizes “She” and “He”.

He, Diouana, and She

He, Diouana, and She

“He is so blasé.”

“She is a bitch.”

The dynamic between Diouana and the couple is both subtle and blatant in a dual-effort to further dehumanize her in the house. She’s no longer allowed to wear her heels which are a part of her style and identity, she’s criticized for the meals she makes, and is nitpicked for how she works. She is come on to by He and rejects him. Diouana is told if she doesn’t do her job she won’t eat to which she replies “If I don’t eat I won’t take care of the children”. She begins to wear her hair natural, she doesn’t have a lot of time to explore the city, and, after seeing no alternative but returning to Dakar, Diouana takes her life.

He travels to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings as well as attempt to pay her mother off though she refuses. While there He is startled by a young boy wearing an African mask on his face which accentuates the notion that what we often fear is what we don’t understand. For me, this really highlights the anti-colonialism message of the film: He tries to make an effort to ensure everything is fine by offering money for a woman’s life, He is uneasy at the African mask, and He clearly wants to return home to “normal” and not care about anything that happened even though it was directly related to His actions.

This is an interesting film to watch with the way we are seeing race, politics, social commentary, law enforcement, and more collide. Will this story still feel as powerful in 2066