Sat, 23 Jan 2021

Black Girl (Le noire de )

Director: Ousmane Sembne
Screenplay: Ousmane Sembne (based on his novella)
Stars: Mbissine Thrse Diop (Diouana), Anne-Marie Jelinek (Madame), Robert Fontaine (Monsieur), Momar Nar Sene (Diouana's Boyfriend), Ibrahima Boy (Boy with Mask), Bernard Delbard (Young Male Guest), Nicole Donati (Young Female Guest), Raymond Lemeri (Old Male Guest), Suzanne Lemeri (Old Female Guest), Philippe (Couple's Oldest Son), Sophie (Couple's Daughter), Damien (Couple's Youngest Son)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: Senegal / France
Black Girl Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Black Girl

Ousman Sembne's first feature film, Black Girl (Le noire de ) was one of the very first feature films to emerge from Africa. Sembne, a novelist who turned to filmmaking because he thought it was a better medium to reach an African audience that was largely illiterate, had previously made a short film titled Borom Sarret (1963), which is generally considered the first true African film. While there had been numerous film made in north Africa since the 1920s, those are generally associated with Arab cinema; Sembne's film, which was set in his native Senegal, was the first to emerge from sub-Saharan African, which at the time had no filmic resources, infrastructure, technologies, or sources of financing. Sembne was in the position of literally forging African cinema as he went, which is what makes Black Girl such an important, groundbreaking achievement.

The film was based on Sembne's novella of the same name that was originally published in the 1962 collection Voltaque (Tribal Scars). Sembne's original impetus for writing the novella came from a French newspaper article he read about an African maid who committed suicide in the bathtub of the wealthy French family that had hired her. It was a short article with virtually no information, and it set Sembne wondering who the girl was, where she came from, how she came to work in France, and what drove her to the ultimate act of self-annihilation? Black Girl was his literary response, a way to deal in fiction with difficult questions about identity, colonialism, and the conflict between the two.

Mbissine Thrse Diop stars as Diouana, the black girl of the title, who leaves Dakar, the city where she was born and has lived all her life, for Antibes on the French Riviera, where she is to work as domestic help for a husband and wife, known only as Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) and Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). She had previously worked for them when they were living in Dakar taking care of their three children, which she enjoyed, and when they bring her to Antibes, she assumes it is for the same purpose. But, when she arrives, she finds that they children are not there and she is expected to cook and clean for the family while also standing as a kind of status symbol, the "exotic" black help who cooks authentic Senegalese cuisine for their friends and quietly endures their racist banter and treatment. In coming to France, she imagined that she would have the opportunity to explore the country and live a fascinating European life, but she soon finds that she is confined almost entirely to the family's small apartment, her only excursions outside being to the market. She is treated with casual disdain and condescension by the family, although Madame sometimes unleashes aggressive verbal assaults, particularly in a scene where she berates Diouana for wearing the same clothes every day. She is never beaten or otherwise physically hurt, but the accumulation of interpersonal violence becomes overwhelming, crushing any sense of identity she had and rendering her little more than a slave, unable to be anything other than what the family determines her to be.

Diouana's loss of self becomes the film's great tragedy, although Sembne keeps the narrative just vague enough to prevent us from making easy connections and drawing comfortable conclusions. As abusive as the family is toward Diouana, she bears some responsibility for her own situation, as her lack of agency and quiet acceptance of her fate leads her into a spiral of depression that makes it difficult for her to even get out of bed, which only further enrages Madame, who simply assumes she is being lazy. In flashbacks we see that Diouana was warned of this possibility by her boyfriend, who is politically engaged and more aware of the insidious nature of colonialism and how it undermines individuality by creating a constant victim mentality. We hear Diouana's thoughts in voice-over narration, and they suggest a sense of introspection that, had it been nurtured, could have led to some kind of liberation. We see that she is someone of spirit back in Dakar, celebrating happily with her mother when she gets the job working for the French family and gamely dancing across a war monument in a way that infuriates her boyfriend. By scattering these flashbacks throughout the film, Sembne constantly reminds us of what is being lost and suggests powerfully how colonialism and its mindset does not immediately dissipate once a country has achieved independence.

Black Girl Blu-ray
Aspect Ratio1.37:1

Linear PCM 1.0 monaural

Subtitles English

  • Borom sarret (1963), director Ousmane Sembne's debut
  • Video interviews with scholars Manthia Diawara and Samba Gadjigo
  • Excerpt from a 1966 broadcast of JT de 20h, featuring Sembne accepting the Prix Jean Vigo
  • Video interview with actor M'Bissine Thrse Diop
  • Sembne: The Making of African Cinema (1994), documentary by Diawara and Ngg wa Thiong'o
  • Alternate color sequence
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Ashley Clark
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 24, 2017

    Befitting the film's important historical and cultural status, Black Girl has been given a new 4K digital restoration by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation was taken from this restoration, which began was a scan of the original 35mm camera negative. Extensive digital restoration has brought the film back into exceedingly good shape, although there are some traces of damage that could not be repaired without altering the film itself (there is what looks like water damage at one point during the lunch sequence early in the film). Otherwise, the film looks spectacular, with excellent detail and contrast in the beautiful black-and-white cinematography. The Linear PCM monaural soundtrack was mastered from the original 35mm soundtrack negative. It sounds clear and free of virtually all aural artifacts.
    Criterion has put together quite a few noteworthy supplements for this release, starting with Ousmane Sembne's acclaimed 1963 debut short film, Borom sarret, which is also presented in a new 4K digital restoration. We also get new video interviews with filmmaker and scholar Manthia Diawara and Mount Holyoke professor of French Samba Gadjigo about the importance of Sembne's career and his films, as well as a new video interview with actor M'Bissine Thrse Diop, who discusses how she came to star in the film and what it was like working with Sembne. From the archive we have an excerpt from a 1966 broadcast of JT de 20h featuring Sembne accepting the Prix Jean Vigo for Black Girl, the hour-long 1994 documentary Sembne: The Making of African Cinema by Manthia Diawara and Ngg wa Thiong'o, an alternate color various of the sequence when Monsieur is driving Diouana from the airport, and a trailer.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)


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