Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 feature Black Girl is mostly known for its historical context as the first film from a black filmmaker from Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve wide critical acclaim. Sembène adopted the black & white, handheld “immediacy” of the French New Wave to boost the likelihood of French audiences & critics taking note of his breakthrough/debut feature, a gamble that paid off immensely and solidified his legacy as an artist. What that legacy might not immediately convey until you actually engage with the film as an isolated work is just how deeply, unapologetically angry Sembène was as an artist & a political mind. Black Girl may be most remembered for its historical significance, but what makes it an exceptional work is how it uses its French cinema aesthetic & international attention to punch Sembène’s newfound audience in the gut with an angry political screed about modern colonialism & racial subjugation. Black Girl is important not only for the previously unseen wide reach it was able to achieve for African cinema on the world stage, but also for the fiery political message it delivers on that scale.
Diouana, a young Senegalese woman, is recruited by white, French tourists to nanny their children while on vacation. This short-term gig evolves into a full-time career as the woman emigrates to France to live permanently as the family’s employee. Her drive from the international steamship that dumps her into a sea of white faces is the last she’ll see of seaside France’s beautiful buildings, beaches, and leisure culture. Expected to confine herself to the few rooms of the family’s condo for a 24/7 work schedule with essentially no pay, Diouana finds herself to be less of an employee and more of a prisoner or a slave. The French family she serves are “cultured” yuppie colonizers who collect African people the same way they collect African art & travel stories. They cut Diouana off from the outside world with a promised fantasy of what life in France could be like, then gradually strip her of her identity & self-worth until all she has in the world is her uncompensated duty to serve and the often-repeated question, “Why am I here?” They talk about her like she’s not in the room, declaring her “useless” & “lazy” for not immediately obliging every whim. Their guests forcibly kiss her cheeks and vocally estimate her to be “like an animal.” Instead of giving in to this subjugation, Diouana protests with the only means that are available to her: allowing her body & soul to tragically break down so that she is no longer useful to her modern day slave owners.
I greatly respect Sembène’s choice to adopt the cinematic aesthetic of French intellectuals in his political screed railing against the colonialism of French intellectuals. However, Black Girl‘s seething anger steers its take on the French New Wave away from an imitation of the genre to something much more fiercely unique for its time. The dangerous-feeling voyeurism of French New Wave technique would later be adapted to the cheaply produced, often exploitative horrors of 1970s American grindhouse pictures; Black Girl is just rough enough around the edges to feel prescient of that cultural shift. It’s wobbly enough in its shocking jabs of sex & violence and overall political anger to feel predictive of the onslaught of violent horrors that would emerge from New York City just a few years later (which was likely more of a mutation of the erotica subgenre “roughies” than anything, admittedly). Black Girl is saturated in voice-over narration (almost to the point of functioning as a diary) that provides it a sense of well-behaved structure, but there’s an overriding D.I.Y. punk sensibility in its political anger that makes it feel more like an intrusion & an act of rebellion than a simple French New Wave devotee. At just an hour in length and entirely unconcerned with playing nice once it gets a foot in the door, Black Girl is much more in line with the political anger of a punk messaging piece like Born in Flames than it is with the artsy fartsy ennuii of a Jules and Jim or The 400 Blows. It’s a historically significant work both for its achievements in breaking through cultural/critical barriers and for setting political fires once those barriers were breached.