The Criterion Corner

Black Girl

Director: Ousmane Sembène

Year of release: 1966

Running time: 1 hour

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Ousmane Sembène's 1966 anti-colonialist picture, Black Girl.

African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl is a harrowing examination of so-called "decolonization" during the late 1960s, but it's also anti-polemical in that a harsh reality is simply presented without the need for the filmmaker to trot out a victim narrative. All of the characters here; including the callous yet oblivious middle class French housewife and her hangdog husband, are byproducts of France/African imperialism which has given way to a certain perspective. Of course, this perspective is skewered by socioeconomic entitlement which blankets over another form of slavery and appropriation, but Sembène doesn't demonize the white characters. They are clueless and unsympathetic to be sure, but the film's real interest is in the gradual dehumanization of it's central black figure, Diouna (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a maid who travels from Africa to France in search of a more glamorous life.

At 60 minutes, Black Girl would seem to skimp on a detailed narrative, but Sembène employs an elliptical style; with very little synchronous sound, Senegalese music cues, and voice over set against scenes where Diouna tediously cleans the house and cooks meals. This technique integrates the audience into this world, allowing us to feel the repetitiveness of Diouna's actions, as well as her growing disdain for the casual racism of her white employers, who treat her either like an indentured servant or a foreign object to be gawked at. In one particularly revealing scene, Diouna is kissed on the cheek by an elderly white man during a dinner party because of his uncomfortable fondness for her otherworldly appearance. Moments like these are disturbing because they illustrate a complete lack of self-awareness, and the polite nature of such bigotry is endemic of an entire system poisoned from the inside out. Tragically, despite Diouna's efforts to fight against this form of oppression, her spirit ultimately breaks under the burden of her "otherness."

What's most remarkable about Black Girl is that it's told entirely from the perspective of a black woman. Mbissine Thérèse Diop's expressive, nonverbal performance is subtle and gracious, and the way she uses her posture to evoke emotion is strikingly pared with stream of consciousness voice over narration. There's also a bit of the French New Wave in Sembène's approach here; with jagged editing cross-cutting between hauntingly realistic black-and-white cinematography, but it's the unrelenting focus on one woman's journey of dehumanization which lingers most. During the powerful final scenes, where the middle class French husband travels to Africa in order to make amends through economic means, the visage of a young child stalking him covered in a tribal face mask, seems to suggest the ghosts of all the disenfranchised and oppressed will never be appeased by the lie of decolonization. Hopefully, a film like Black Girl, newly restored and given the full Criterion Collection treatment, will give such ghosts a startlingly new voice.