Le noire de...

 (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal/France, 1966) 65 + 29 minutes


Director: Ousmane Sembene
Producer: André Zwoboda
Screenplay: Ousmane Sembene,
  based on his own novella
Cinematography: Christian Lacoste
Editor: André Gaudier
Mbissine Thérèse Diop (Diouana)
Anne-Marie Jelinek (Madame)
Robert Fontaine (Monsieur)
Momar Nar Sene (Diouana's Boyfriend)
Bernard Delbard (Young Male Guest)
Nicole Donati (Young Female Guest)

Reviews and notes

2007 Venice
2008 Vancouver, Thessaloniki
2015 (restored) Cannes, New York, London

Sembène transforms a deceptively simple plot — about a young Senegalese woman who moves to France to work for a wealthy white couple and finds that life in their small apartment becomes a figurative and literal prison — into a complex, layered critique on the lingering colonialist mindset of a supposedly postcolonial world. Featuring a moving central performance by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Black Girl is a harrowing human drama as well as a radical political statement — and one of the essential films of the 1960s. Preceded by Borom Sarret, a powerful indictment of neo-colonialism which follows a day in the life of a poor horse-cart driver, as we see him being manipulated and swindled by a series of customers.

In Movies as Politics, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum makes a case for Senegal writer-director Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl as the symbolic genesis of sub-Saharan African filmmaking, at least to the extent that the authorship belonged to a born and bred African and not a well-meaning European ethnographer like, for instance, the extraordinary Moi, un Noir's Jean Rouch. Based on one of his own anti-colonialist stories, Sembène's 1965 film begins with the arrival of Diouana, a stylish young black woman, to the French Riviera. Giddy on dreams of attaining true cosmopolitanism, Diouana has accepted a job as a domestic to a diffident married couple. In Senegal, she was a nanny to their children. But once she arrives in France and gets set to sweep floors, scrub bathtubs, and prepare spice-free versions of her homeland cuisine for houseguests (the couple's kids apparently study abroad), she comes to the slow realization that her employees are more like masters and her domestic position is really just paid slavery.

Though nominally free in the sense that she isn't locked up in her masters' apartment, Diouana's illiteracy and plummeting sense of vocational self-worth quickly lead her into a spiral of depression. She tries to hold onto a sliver of hope, wearing glamorous spike heels while she does her housework and reminding herself repeatedly that soon the kids will come back and her house chores will stop. But Diouana's boss, a malcontent, snippy housewife, demands that Diouana remove her flashy footwear (in a clear fit of class vengeance), and the kids' arrival continues to loom in the distance.

Diouana's situation is obviously tragic, but Sembène's ability to match his contempt for so-called “decolonization” with a non-judgmental eye toward all his characters defuses any danger of slipping into polemics. Diouana's excitement over her move to France isn't, surprisingly, in anticipation of her future paychecks. Instead, her ambitions are downright shallow: She can't wait to use her wages to buy dresses so that she can take pictures of herself living posh and send them to her friends and relatives back home in hope that her success will throw them into paroxysms of jealousy.

Decolonization in Black Girl isn't only a myth, but also a myth that actually strengthens the consumerist caste systems. The frustrated (and unnamed) middle-class housewife, who can't chide her droopy-dog husband to lift an eyebrow, isn't a monster in any unequivocal sense. Her outrage is a byproduct of the expectations that the economic exploitation of France's African imperialism have given her. And when her husband returns to Senegal to pay a guilt-ridden visit to Diouana's estranged relatives, the presumptuousness of his attempts to fix his mistakes by dropping cash is obviously callous, but it's all he knows. The mask-wearing boy who follows him out of town silently suggests the caveat emptor of a culture that the husband's nation tried to buy, but misplaced the receipt.
- Eric Henderson, Slant, 30 December 2005.

Preceded by: BOROM SARRET
(Ousmane Sembene, Senegal 1963)

Borom Sarret opens to the stark emptiness of a black screen, evocatively filled by the sound of a solemn, mystical tribal chant incanted amid the asynchrony of a blunt, rhythmic beat. The darkness subsequently reveals a high contrast, daylight shot of the impoverished native quarters, cutting to a shot of the supplicant (Ly Abdoulaye) praying for benediction in the foreground with his wife silently toiling in the background, as the pair assiduously perform their disparate (and intrinsically revelatory) rituals at the break of dawn. Retrieving his family's sole possession - the horse Albourah - from a clearing, the unnamed man then leaves to fetch his wooden cart in order to earn a paltry income as a borom sarret, (a derivative of the French term bonhomme charret), a horse-cart driver for hire operating around the native quarters of Dakar, often picking up equally destitute passengers who can only offer an indebted (and indefinite) promise of payment or a wordless, ambiguous handshake in lieu of the fare. Nevertheless, the day seemingly turns auspicious as actual paying customers begin to hire his services - an overloaded delivery of construction concrete blocks and an expectant couple hurrying to the hospital for the birth of their child - begin to replace the destitute early morning commuters (and presumptuous hitchhikers) catching a free ride to the main town square. With earned money in hand, he decides to stop at an intersection in order to enjoy the idyllic morning, eat his meager kola nut lunch, and tend to a persistently squeaking wheel on his cart before being distracted by the uplifting voice of a traditional singer performing on the street. The singer's ancient tales enhearten the borom sarret, evoking images of his ancestral family's nobility and former glory, and in an act of impulsive and negligent pride, magnanimously hands over his entire earnings to the charismatic singer. Now running out of time and anxious to recuperate his lost income, the desperate borom sarret begins to accept a series of desperate and dubious passengers, and soon finds himself driving his outmoded, derelict cart into the modernized - and forbidden - hillside colonial-era community appropriately called the Heights.

Marking the cinematic debut of Senegalese novelist and Moscow-trained filmmaker Ousmane Sembene - and also representing the earliest film directed by an indigenous filmmaker in sub-Sahara Africa - Borom Sarret is a spare and distilled, yet lucid, innovative, and socially incisive portrait of poverty, marginalization, servility, and exploitation. Filming in high contrast black and white and implementing an asynchronous soundtrack and narrative voice-over (in order to work around equipment limitation), Sembene creates an implicit dichotomy between words and images - between a disenfranchised person's seemingly assertive thoughts and his contradictory, compliant actions - that illustrate the ingrained - and largely self-perpetuated - cultural behavior among the poor and working class that continue to foster social stratification even under the egalitarian ideals of the nation's post-colonial, native sovereignty. Sembene further conveys socio-economic polarization through visually recurring point-of-view shots taken from the exaggerated perspective of an acute angled camera that figuratively reflect class disparity: the disfigured beggar's humble plea for alms as the lazing borom sarret feigns unawareness; the peripheral activity of a crouching shoeshine boy who helplessly allows a customer to leave without paying (as the singer panders to the gullible borom sarret on the street corner); the defeated image of the borom sarret bowing down to reclaim a souvenir medal as the police officer deliberately steps on the article while issuing a ticket. It is this dysfunctional and inextricable entanglement between covetousness and idle ambition, condescension and self-pity, braggadocio and moral defeatism that is ultimately reflected in the transitional shots of the iconic, towering edifice that looms over the road leading away from the native quarters - a delusive symbol of unity and exclusion, self-authority and corruption, empowerment and emasculation.
- Acquarello, 2004.

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