I discovered Ousmane Sembène and the wonders of African cinema years ago while living in Chicago. I was drawn to the multi-dimensional female protagonists in Sembène’s movies. His interest in women’s strengths and vulnerabilities are apparent. Sembène often referred to the African continent as a woman. It was no surprise that Sembène chose a heroine to dramatize the consequences of colonialism in his first feature film “Black Girl,” which screened in a restored print at the New York Film Festival this week.
“Black Girl” examines themes of exploitation, patriarchy, cultural appropriation and identity. Elegantly mimicking Western culture with her dress, heels, wig and pearls, Diouana arrives in France with expectations of paradise. She looks forward to continuing her duties as nanny for a French couple, called only Monsieur and Madame, and their three children. She previously worked for them in Dakar, Senegal.
Diouana’s fantasies about France are quickly dashed. Instead of a villa, Monsieur and Madame live in a high-rise apartment building and the children have not yet arrived. Diouana is also surprised to see the West African mask she gave to Madame in gratitude hanging unceremoniously on the wall. She is immediately put to work cleaning, cooking and washing. Diouana feels deceived, trapped and exploited as Madame sharply orders her around.
Flashbacks reveal how Diouana arrived in France. With limited options, she searches for work as a maid in Senegal. After doors are literally slammed in her face, she joins other women in the square waiting for work. One day Madame comes by and looks over the women like slaves on an auction block. Eagerly, the women rush towards Madame. Noticing that Diouana is the only one still sitting, Madame selects her to be the nanny.
Diouana incorrectly assumed that she would have the same freedom as Madame in France. Instead she is confined to the apartment and her role as servant. Diouana comes to realize that Madame’s life isn’t as great as she imagined. She has a husband who drinks too much and ignores her. Both Diouana and Madame are caught up in the patriarchal system, but Madame relieves her frustrations by asserting authority over Diouana in an oppressive manner. Diouana, however, has no one to turn to.
Another flashback reveals Diouana excitedly preparing to move to France. She poses for a picture with her boyfriend and gets annoyed when he touches her breast. They approach Independence Plaza and a wall commemorating soldiers who died during World War II. Diouana kicks off her shoes and skips over the wall unaware of its significance, ignoring her boyfriend’s protests. Diouana seems naïve and lacks a sense of history. She is so focused on her imagined new life that her mother’s warning to be “courageous” goes right over her head.
Diouana symbolically reclaims her cultural identity by taking back the mask she gave to Madame. Diouana resists being exploited any longer and commits suicide. Through Diouana, Sembène demonstrates the tragedy of not knowing one’s history and valuing another culture more than your own. Issues of identity and culture are timeless. All perspectives deserve attention and do matter.