AKA: La Noire De…, The Black Girl of…, The Black Woman of…, Someone’s Black Girl, The Black Girl From…
Year Released: 1966
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Running Time: 55 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Emitai, Borom Sarret, Inshallah Dimanche, Felicite
-The New Yorker Films DVD was used for this review.
-Special thanks to Dr. Y. for informing me about Ousmane Sembene!
-Black Girl is the third film, but the first full-length project from director/author Ousmane Sembene. This was based on one of his short stories of the same name and it’s the first full-length film created by an African in film history.
-The movie is split between Dakar, Senegal and Antibes, France. Dakar is the largest city and capital of Senegal with over a million people. Some famous people who have lived in that city are Akon and Youssou N’dour (Hey, anime fans! The character N’dour from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is named after that singer!). Antibes is a city with over 74,000 people and the most famous musical entity from there is M83 best known for their song “Midnight City”.
-Diouana is played by Mbissine Therese Diop who was from Dakar and briefly lived in France (Corsica) in real life. Outside of acting, she works in textiles.
Whenever I tackle movies made long before I was born, there have been times where I think about my tenure as a student at the university I graduated. I have taken multiple film related courses as part of my degree audit, so I learned the aspects of production, editing, and the historical parts of film. We certainly talked about and saw movies from various names such as Frederico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Francois Truffaut to name a few. Unfortunately, we also had to deal with D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which is still taught in film school and film/media courses to this day regardless of how painfully overt racism in that film. There has been one filmmaker who I didn’t even know about until I checked out Cameroonian blogger Dr. Y’s Afrolegends site (seriously, please check it out) where he mentioned the “Father of African Cinema”. I was fortunate to find multiple DVDs on Netflix which featured his work, so I rented one of his earlier films.
After watching this film, I asked myself this…How is this guy not being taught in film history courses?
Black Girl is about a Senegalese woman named Diouana. She’s from the outskirts of Dakar and is begging to find work. Diouana starts out as a child care worker for a French family who have a Summer home in Senegal’s capital. She gets an opportunity to travel to Antibes to work for the same family which she fantasizes visiting France to escape her home country to see the various riches, places to shop, or relaxing in the heart of the French Riviera. Diouana gets a VERY rude awakening as she is treated like garbage with the family’s main house. While expecting to have the same duties as back in Dakar, she ends up doing way more than what she expected by doing the cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids (who don’t show up to Antibes for over half the film, by the way), serving, and everything possible while the family doesn’t do anything but abuse her and have their fellow rich friends over. Diouana is miserable in her life as the lazy Madame constantly scolds her for the littlest things and she doesn’t get to leave the house to see France.
Wow, this was such an eye-opening watch for me. Even though I have rarely watched anything from the 60s with the exception of certain works which I’ve reviewed on here from Akira Kurosawa and Osamu Tezuka, but I will say that this film is still relevant to this day. The racism against Diouana is brutally realistic and it doesn’t even involve the N-word spoken to her (even Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation  can’t even say that and I really liked that movie!). The insults are loaded with dog whistles and double talk as the French family and their friends make so many condescending remarks against Africa with their hoity-toity ways. Any non-White person who watches this film will definitely know how she feels and has heard similar things in the background or to their faces. Even though Black Girl is surely a realist film, there are so many subtle metaphors about colonization and immigration in different ways such as the masks or how the music alternates between piano tunes and traditional Senegalese folk music depending on the scenes. The acting is spot on as the viewer can feel the sadness and internalized rage of Diouana even in the scenes where she’s not narrating her thoughts. The Madame just nails that level of being a Stepford wife of sorts normally while also harboring a bossiness so criminally hypocritical. She is basically whining when Diouana refuses to make her coffee and complains that she had to do it herself. The Madame also dares to say that Diouana doesn’t deserve to eat whenever she doesn’t work even though the Madame is a stay-at-home mom/wife who doesn’t work at all, so she had no right to talk. I’ve seen theories about the Madame being a metaphor for the colonizer which makes way too much sense as she has Black people do everything for her for cheap (or free), treats them badly, while living in opulence under the suffering of the colonized. When you consider the fact that Senegal was a former French colony and in historical context was only independent for a few years at that time, this makes the connections quite strong on so many levels. Then there was the plot twist. WOW, I legit didn’t see that coming and it made the ramifications of that tragedy so much greater and the “revenge” of sorts in Senegal is effective in it’s abstract nature while still being believable.
Black Girl is such a hard-hitting gut check of a watch and I know people are going to feel uncomfortable watching this. A movie like this one could’ve only been written by an African as Sembene clearly lived in Senegal during French occupation. Even decades after this movie was filmed, you still see people in Africa moving to Europe, America, and Canada to supposedly live a better life while dealing with racism, discrimination, and hate crimes. Some of them try to travel via the Red Sea and Mediterranean even while those boats would sink (this was actually a plot point in the Eritrean movie I reviewed earlier called Mano). While they’re in their own countries (in this case, Francophone Africa), the money they use such as the West African and Central African Franc gets funneled back to France with the taxes and interests since those currencies go straight to France’s Central Bank. Check out Dr. Y.’s articles about this predatory currency since he really breaks it down for anyone to understand. Shoot, even former French president Jacques Chirac openly admitted that if it wasn’t for Africa, then his home country would be a third world nation for crying out loud. The situation is timeless and had to be addressed in movie format.
Ousmane Sembene’s first full-length film does have a few shortcomings. Since this movie was made in the 60s, there are parts that have certainly aged like the cinematography, fashion, and cultural aspects which will be obvious to many a modern viewer. I thought that Diouana’s family was underdeveloped until the finale of the film. You see some of them in the multiple flashbacks since the movie flips between Diouana’s past in Senegal and present in France, but I would’ve liked to know more about her relationship with her family. While the anti-racism and anti-colonial messages are very effective, there are times where it got preachy like the monologue of Diouana calling herself a slave in one of her bouts of depression. She wasn’t wrong since she didn’t get paid despite working there for days or possibly weeks at that point, but I thought the dialogue was too didactic at that juncture in the story. This movie certainly doesn’t pass the Deggans Test given the messages of the overall film and I can definitely see the Caucasian populace being uneasy when they see the brutal inversion of the White Savior complex or with how realistic the racism is portrayed instead of the cartoonish and borderline strawman displays in Western media. Racism isn’t just about dropping N-bombs or wearing sheets, it can be sweet talked in subtle ways by the business class of the world which will throw the majority of Americans off if they watch it. Shoot, I’m surprised that The Criterion Collection were the ones to re-license and remaster this film given the content of the movie. This isn’t an easy watch regardless of one’s race, so I’ll have to warn people that way.
Black Girl is one of the best classic films from Africa that I had never heard of. The acting and realism of this film is on point with the plotting, characterization, and themes presented here. The messages against racism and colonization are scathing in it’s subtlety and great writing. I guarantee everyone has met someone who was just like at least one character of this film. There are times where the themes get preachy and it is obvious that Black Girl was made in the 60s which could turn off most younger viewers and not just because the movie is in black and white. Ousmane Sembene absolutely floored me with all the connected parts involved. Some of you may see where this is going, but Black Girl is going to be an Iridium Eye first for multiple aspects given the score I give it. I can’t recommend this enough for those who like classic international films or those that are willing to check out gritty dramas. Ousmane Sembene, you deserve to be in the pantheon of filmmakers.
Adjustable Rating System:
Subtract 1-3 points if racism makes you uncomfortable in movies.
-Realistic portrayal of racist behavior, imperialism, and colonization
-Brutal deconstructive narrative
-Can get preachy at times
-Diouana’s family is underdeveloped
-Not Deggans Test compliant
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: Black Girl is fine for teens and up mainly because of the themes presented. Diouana is psychologically and physically abused to the point that would make Lady Tremaine and her daughters from Cinderella would gasp in horror. She even gets starved out for a portion of the movie. There’s partial nudity in a couple of scenes and implied sex even though nothing is really shown in a brief scene. One major plot aspect involves the aftermath of a suicide where blood is shown. The overall themes of colonization, imperialism, and dog whistle racism will go over the heads of younger viewers.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Black Girl is property of Ousmane Sembene and The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from IMDb and is property of The Criterion Collection.