A girl's own story

What struck me most upon re-watching Ousmane Sembene’s classic Black Girl (1965)—recently restored and released on Blu-ray by Criterion—is its total avoidance of sentiment in telling the story of Diouana (M’Bissine Therese Diop) as she travels from Dakar to the French Riviera, ostensibly to work as a nanny for a white couple, where she suffers such profound alienation that she is eventually moved to commit suicide.  Upon arriving in France, Diouana succumbs to the drudgery of cooking and cleaning for her (nameless) employers; the wife nags and berates her endlessly, while the passive, alcoholic husband tries to placate her with cash—Sembene’s point being that bourgeois Westerners believe that with enough money any indecency can be compensated.  (After Diouana’s death the husband travels to Dakar and offers Diouana's wages to her mother, who refuses to accept them.) 

Sembene suggests that Diouana and her employers are jointly imprisoned within a colonialist ideology in which each culture sees the other as Other.  The husband and wife exoticize Diouana, their understanding of her limited to externalities such as her food and her clothes, while Diouana labors under the delusion, fueled by fashion magazines and anecdotes, that France is a dream-place of leisure and pleasure.  Even if the film ends on a note of reparation, with a traditional African mask owned by Diouana being returned to her family, Sembene does not present an image of the cultural divide between Europe and Africa being breached.      

The plot of this fifty-nine-minute film has the contours of melodrama.  But Diouana’s plight is treated by Sembene and his actors with chilly irony instead of with tears and sighs.  (A master ironist, Sembene’s other masterpieces, like Xala [1974], are similarly trenchant; Mooladé, his 2004 parable about female circumcision in Burkina Faso, is the closest he came to making a feel-good movie.)  In a film that is shot through with the politics of anti-colonialism, this may be its most subtly political move: Sembene refuses to give Western audiences the satisfaction of using pathos as a way of engaging with Diouana’s story.  It’s unsettling to be presented with a representation of a victim who is not made into an object of pity—and yet this distinction is crucial to engaging with the politics of Black Girl.  By keeping his characters at an emotional distance that Brecht would have admired, Sembene prevents us from responding to them according to familiar, maudlin conventions.  Sembene’s stance is never “poor Diouana!”; it is always “this happened.

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