Black Girl is an important film in the history of world cinema—it’s often considered to be the first Sub-Saharan African film to get any real international attention. The film’s director, Ousmane Sembène, is often touted as the father of African cinema. It helped that he had gained some fame as a writer in France before he started making films which no doubt made funding a little easier. His next film Mandabi would be his first in his native Wolof language, his previous films were in French.
Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is a young Senegalese woman who comes from a poor village and is offered work by a French couple. She moves to Antibes, France, and believes she will be a nanny to their kids. However, quickly any dreams of cosmopolitan life are squashed, because she is treated essentially as a slave by the couple. The film jumps back and forth between her life in France and her previous life in Africa.
The film is obviously about colonial rule by the French, even after Senegal gained independence from France in 1960 (the film came out in 1966.) One of the most interesting sequences comes when she receives a letter from her mother, and due to Diouana’s illiteracy, they write her response. She doesn’t correct them but says “it’s not my letter!” It’s a very effective sequence that shows how her voice is created by her colonizer instead of her.
The other stand-out scene is the ending: the film ends on a tragic note, and the male half of the white couple brings back her belongings, which includes an African mask. The mask is a recurring motif in the film, and represents her for the most part, so the mask returning to her motherland is her spirit returning. In the final moment, however, a young boy puts it on and follows the man, which represents the past of colonial rule, something that will always haunt France. The woman’s spirit is chasing her colonizers out, but there is also a sense of uncertainty about Africa’s future.
Black Girl is a really interesting piece of cinema that you should seek out. It’s also fairly short, only around a hour long, so there’s really no excuse to miss it. The performance from Mbissine Thérèse Diop is remarkable.
The Criterion release is absolutely loaded with extras, including Ousmane Sembène’s 1963 debut short film Borom Sarret, interviews with actor M’Bissine Thérèse Diop and scholars Manthia Diawara and Samba Gadjigo, and archival footage from the 1966 broadcast of JT de 20h of Sembène accepting the Prix Jean Vigo. However, the highlight may be a lengthy documentary from 1994, Sembène: The Making of African Cinema. In addition, an alternative colour sequence is included, but not as a part of the film (the BFI release includes both cuts), as is the trailer. The booklet includes an essay by critic Ashley Clark.