Why Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” Deserves a Second Look

Why Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” Deserves a Second Look

Ousmane Sembène wants to remind you that the end of slavery was not the end of slavery.

Senegalese writer/director Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl portrays the ever-present casual racism that exists across the world. Cutting between her past life in Senegal and her present-day life in France, the film follows Dioauna, a woman from a very poor town just outside of Dakar. She travels to the city to find work as a maid with no luck until she hears of a group of women who wait on the same block every day in hopes of being employed. “Madame,” a French white woman, comes to choose a maid and is bombarded by the other women. She chooses Diouana, who resisted the look of desperation. Her restraint showed Madame that she is ready to take direction.

Her time working for Madame and her husband, “Monsieur,” in Dakar proves fulfilling as she cares mostly for the children. The children treated her as an equal, not paying attention to the color of people’s skin. She works in Senegal until the family moves back to their home in France. Having loved the work so far, she decides to continue working for them. However, when she boats over to France she is met with different attitudes and given far more work.

Diouana cooks, cleans, and performs other housework as would be expected of a maid, but she is treated far more harshly. Madame does not allow Diouana a moment of rest; when Diouana cleans in a nice dress and heels, Madame tells her to remember that she is a maid; and at a dinner party, one of Madame’s friends gets up and says, “I’ve never kissed a Black girl before,” before proceeding to kiss her on the cheeks. When Diouana follows directions, these friends openly speak about her proclaiming she must be some type of well-trained pet with her ability to do as she is told so well. Despite all the work she does, Madame accuses Diouana of being lazy because occasionally she likes to take a nap. Eventually she is able to work more with the children, but with the 180-degree turn from polite to dictatorial and all the other thankless work, she feels defeated.

There are different displays of racism in the film. Madame acts as an authoritative voice focused on having a someone who follows orders, never rests, and never goes out on the town, rather than someone human to treat as a productive member of the household, like a slave owner. Monsieur is shown as sympathetic toward Diouana and in disagreement with Madame’s approach, but he remains silent, passively allowing the mistreatment of Diouana to continue. And the couple’s friends are outspoken on how they perceive any non-whites, especially Blacks, to be animalistic. Portraying these different perspectives speaks universally to how racism manifests across the world.

The story of the film is so simply told and so simply shot. It’s is in black and white and overtly about Blacks and whites. In 1624, the first French colonial empire established trading posts in Senegal. Gorée was the island chosen for the post and remained so until France abolished slavery in 1848. Due to Senegal’s coastal advantages for slave trade, it became a the French base in West-Africa, and its capital Dakar, one of the most important cities in the French Empire of Africa. In 1960, the Mali Federation, which linked the French colonies and the Sudanese Republic, disbanded. Postcolonial Dakar was left having a very divided society with white French abundant in the population. And this would drive people from poorer villages or countries to come in search of work. When working in Senegal, Diouana felt at home, but when in France, she felt underappreciated and like a nuisance, entirely due to the color of her skin.

Ousmane Sembène helmed this film beautifully. Most of the dialogue is Diouana’s thoughts as she desperately questions her place in the household and in the world. She cannot revolt against her employees and she cannot quit her job because losing it would be too much after working so diligently to obtaining it. Diouana vows to never be their slave, but as she lacks so much independence, a slave is what she has essentially become. She can’t go out, she’s not paid very well, and her rests are interrupted by helping privileged people who don’t appreciate her. The story does a great job at depicting how racism lingers long after history has established a certain normalcy. Streaming currently on the Criterion Channel, I highly recommend Black Girl, and also urge you to check out the other films in their “Black Lives” collection.


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